Monday, July 23, 2012

Don Ray is a sniffling, sobbing sentimental --- but jumping for joy today!

Officer Joe Wilson was first my nemesis, later my hero and, for decades now, an obsession. Today, a dream came true for me. Today I was able to connect with Joe Wilson’s family. Now I’m typing as quickly as I can on a salty, sticky keyboard.

In 1961, Burbank Police Officer Joe Wilson died at the corner of Buena Vista Street and Thornton Avenue in Burbank. He was on duty on his motorcycle. Someone plowed into him and killed him. His life and his death would change my world forever.

Two years before the accident, Officer Joe Wilson began stalking me. OK, he wasn’t stalking, he was looking out for me and hundreds of other 10-year-olds who he felt were at risk. We were bicycle riders without a clue. We were tragedies waiting to happen, he believed.

So with the support of the Burbank Police Department, he waged a campaign to ticket as many of us as he could. We didn’t have to pay fines, we had to show up at the police department on Saturday mornings and face Officer Joe Wilson. We had to learn traffic laws and bicycle safety. Let me cut to the chase here — I’m sure he saved my life and the lives of others. We became safe, law-abiding drivers.

In part because the Burbank Police Department is unable or unwilling to enforce bicycle traffic laws the way they did back then, I think of Officer Joe Wilson often. If only he were lurking and stalking today’s kids and their parents as they pedal illegally on sidewalks, on the wrong side of the street and through stop signs and traffic signals. If only he were around to teach them the way he taught us.

For decades, I’ve tried to track down Joe Wilson’s wife or his sons. But because they all left California after his death, remarriages and because Wilson is such a common name, I was never able to contact them and tell them how much Officer Wilson meant to me and to the safety of children in Burbank.
Today, someone from the Burbank Police Department called me to tell me that Officer Joe Wilson’s grandson, Kyle Wilson had read a message I had posted on a police memorial site. She gave me his number.
I’m sure that I must have sounded like a sobbing 10-year-old, but I was finally able to tell a family member of Officer Joe Wilson what impact he had on my life.

Kyle Wilson lives in Langley, OK, and is, himself, a law enforcement officer. Of course, he never met his grandfather, but he has displayed Officer Joe Wilson’s badge on his wall for most of his life.

“It was hard for my dad to talk about his father,” Kyle told me. “One thing was for sure, though — he never allowed me to have a motorcycle. If I ever got one, he said I should get a big one — one big enough to carry all of my things when he kicked me out of the house.”

It would be an Oklahoma Highway Patrolman, however, who taught Kyle the same kind of lesson Officer Joe Wilson had taught me and my friends. Kyle says that he was goofing off in life until that patrolman stopped him and awakened him.

“He pulled my head out of my butt and put his boot there,” Kyle said.

That’s what motivated Kyle to turn his life around and become a police enforcement officer — to his father’s chagrin. Kyle left law enforcement after many years and found another way to reach out to people. He and his wife opened up a boarding house for the mentally ill. They still run it today, even though Kyle has, once again, decided to wear a uniform and a badge.

“I got that itch again,” he said. “It’s not about the money — it never was.”

Kyle and I are going to remain connected forever, I’m certain. I have to tell him about the many ways his grandfather shaped my life (police explorer, military policeman, federal police officer) and how he turned me into an alert and safe driver.

The good news is that Kyle’s grandmother is alive and well in Oklahoma. He promised me he’s going to put me in touch with her and with his father, who is a veterinarian. And Kyle will tell me more about what he knows about his grandfather — about Joe Wilson’s experiences in World War II and about how his grandfather rescued American prisoners from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Kyle still has the American flag that the prisoners or the rescuers signed.

We have a lot to talk about.

Don’t you love it when dreams come true?


Bev Feldman said...

Really great. One of life's satisfying moments. Congratulations for being a stand for this wonderful man.

sweetsuzee said...

Don - Another check mark on your bucket list. Kudos and glad you connected.

Dave Ripley said...

Another piece of good, satisfying work by you. Congratulations. Still so thankful you 'found' me. Good work, Bro.

VickiSiedow said...

A great story, but then your stories are always great. I'll bet you get some more of them out of this. I'm looking forward to them.

Don Ray said...

And Dave, you didn't even know you were missing. I'm sure glad we found each other, however!

Don Ray said...

I'm waiting for a call from Officer Wilson's widow. For all of the years of journalism and all of the people I've interviewed, I'm really nervous about this one.

Karin Rego said...

What a fantastic, beautiful story. Lives connecting, and positively impacting other lives. I just can't get too much of that good thing. Thank you for writing about this very moving experience, Don, and for drawing my attention to it.

Don Ray said...

Thanks Karin,
Coming from you, I'm triple-honored. I spoke with Officer Joe (Richard is the name he went by) Wilson's widow this evening. She was the most delightful person I've encountered in ages. Get this: she wants me and my family to come to Oklahoma to visit her and her current husband. I'll post more about my chat with her -- but not until tomorrow. I'm drained and exhausted and in another kind of world. It's amazing how rewarding it is to connect with people --- even strangers. And to think, we all waste so much time thinking about ways to not like people. Anyway, this has been a thrilling journey.

Michael Raysses said...


Your persistence is exceeded only by your compassion and instincts. Way to keep your feet moving, sir!

All the best and then some,

Michael Raysses

Anonymous said...

Don, Once again your "sticktoitiveness" and gratefulness reminds me to be mindful of all those who live and give life fully each day, and make such a difference in our world. Thanks, Don. John Z.

Don Ray said...

Thanks, Micheal. Truth be told, everybody has a story that someone needs to tell. And everybody has something to offer the world. Everyone has something to teach me.

Don Ray said...

John, you have to know that much of my inspiration as an investigative journalist came from working with legendary postal inspectors. You were one of them. Thanks!