Saturday, June 18, 2011

The man who probably saved my life a dozen times

It was 50 years ago today that I learned of his untimely death.

I first saw him parked there on his motorcycle at the corner on Seventh Street and Verdugo Avenue. He was facing north. I was going south. I guess I didn't think the stop sign at Verdugo applied to me, so I ran it. The police officer pointed his gloved finger at me and gestured to where he wanted me to stop.

Then he wrote the ticket.

My first ticket.

Driver: Donald Ray

Age: 10

Vehicle make: Murray Bicycle.

Place of employment: Joaquin Miller School.

Occupation: Grammer School (That's right, he misspelled grammar, but I must confess that I wasn't the one who caught the gaffe).

Anyway, the punishment was mandatory attendance in the basement of the Burbank Police Building on a Saturday morning. It was traffic school for kids. And that same motorcycle cop was in charge.

Officer Joe Wilson.

Truth be told, all of us kids there were frightened when he first stood up in his motorcycle boots and stared us down.

I'll say this: we paid attention to what he had to say. And what he taught was the traffic code -- the rules of the road. It was Officer Joe Wilson who made it clear to us that we had to obey all of the same laws that drivers of automobiles on city streets had to obey. I mean, he made it perfectly clear, or else.

OK, so I was a slow learner. I think I learned them one violation at a time.

It seems that whenever I would find it more convenient to ride on the sidewalk or to give my buddy a ride on the back of my bike, Officer Wilson was watching me.

And he'd ticket me again. Another Saturday. Another lecture. It happened several times over the next couple of years. It got to where I could sing along with Jiminy Cricket in the bicycle safety cartoon Officer Wilson would show us at the end. Jiminy sang it again and again.

"I'm no fool. Nosiree. I'm gonna live to be 23. I play safe for you and me cause I'm no fool."

Of course, the next time he sang it it was 33, then 43 and so on until at least 93.

I believe that Officer Wilson singlehandedly taught an entire generation of young boys (and a few girls) how to drive safely -- for life. It was a time when the Burbank Police Department was willing to invest in a full-time traffic officer to teach young people the rules of the road -- and cite them when they broke those rules.
I wish they would do that today. I believe it would save lives.

There's no way to measure how many lives Officer Wilson saved over the last 50 years. I still think of him as a hero. And I have to believe that his lessons have kept me alive for five decades.

You see, when I watch impatient people drive through stop signs in their cars, or ride their bikes on the sidewalk or speed through intersections, I think about Officer Joseph R. Wilson.

And I think about the drunk driver who, on June 17, 1961, ran a red light and plowed into the police motorcycle that Officer Wilson was driving.

I cried the next morning when I saw it in the Burbank Review.

For many years, his lone photograph was on display in the lobby of the Burbank Police Department. The last time I looked, it was still on display, but there were photos of at least two other Burbank Police Officers who died in the line of duty.

A few years ago, I asked for the cooperation of the media relations officer at BPD -- I wanted to track down the wife and children of Officer Joe Wilson so that I could thank them for what their husband and father did for me. But the Public Information Officer turned me down. Privacy restrictions.

Then I went through the old news clippings at the Burbank Leader (formerly the Burbank Review) and was able to get the details I needed. I pulled Officer Wilson's death certificate at the County Recorder's office to learn more details -- details that might help me find his children. I cited the California Public Records Act in a records request I filed with the Burbank City Attorney's office. They ignored my request to be put in touch with the Officer Wilson's wife or children. I'm usually pretty good at finding people, but I wasn't that lucky this time around.

Maybe it wasn't meant to be.

Officer Joseph R.Wilson died a day or two before Father's Day.

This Father's Day, I honor Officer Joseph R. Wilson, 50 years later.

I believe that he cared about me the way a father would. And he cared about scores of other young Burbank kids the same way.

If somehow this message reaches the children of Officer Wilson -- they'd be in their 50s now -- please know that your father has surely saved countless lives, including mine.

I'm certain.


Linda Mustion said...

Hi! Don.....glad you findly got to write this story. I remember you telling me about Officer Wilson at Burger King not to long ago. Did his death Cert. say where he is buried? If so let me know! Also if he is buried locally you can go to the cemetery and see if anyone else is buried next to him, like his wife etc. and then you can look up her obit and it might give you more information on his children. Just a thought!

Don Ray said...

Thanks Linda,
It's been a year or two since I pulled the death certificate. I did everything I usually do to track down the next of kin. I didn't pull the autopsy report and I didn't go to the cemetery.
I've moved offices twice since then and I'm guilty of still being in the process of unpacking. When I find it again, I'll share the information with you. Thanks for the reminders.

Anonymous said...

Great story, Don. Days when policemen were respected and
appreciated....he was a young officer, only 2 years into his career when he started ticketing you...and had only 2 years left.
You did him a great honor!
Maybe one of his kids will see your post someday....C.R.

Don Ray said...

It pleases me that you know so much about Officer Joe Wilson. Thanks for pointing out those facts --- as sad as they are.
I didn't mention in the blog that Officer Wilson was my inspiration to become a Burbank Police Explorer several years later, and that led to my enlisting in the Army as a Military Policeman. That led to my first, post-Vietnam job in law enforcement. And years after I became an investigative journalist, I would write books that law enforcement investigators found to be valuable. Then came the invitations to train investigators -- thousands of them. Yes, Officer Wilson was responsible for more than helping me become a good and safe driver. Again, thanks, C.R.