Online Exclusive

The Quiet Kind of Heroism

The name and number of an old college friend on Caller ID is usually a prelude to good times; remembering old stories and sharing new ones, digging up memories, and seeing where each other’s lives have been and are going. I knew this call was different. A ringing phone rarely brings good news after Ten PM and I knew something was very wrong.

I absorbed the information from Preston in bits, trying hard to separate his words from the pulse of blood rushing in my ears, and pulled out the essential basics:

Rodney Miller - "Rock" Miller if you went to Millikin University in the mid 80s - had been killed in an accident. He was on his way home from work. It was a car accident, somewhere outside Champaign. Sorry... that is about all I know right now. Maybe you can make some calls? Find out more and I'll see what I can find out, too? Will you call Joe and let him know? So sorry to have to tell you this...

Sgt Rodney Miller was a detective with the Illinois State Police and a sixteen year veteran of that proud agency. He was driving to his home in Decatur from a case in Champaign when his squad and another vehicle collided violently in a rural intersection, killing him instantly. Only 40, he left behind his wife, Karla, two young sons, Daley and Zach, his parents and family and, as I would learn, hundreds or more friends and acquaintances whose lives he had touched on the job as a trooper and investigator, and off duty by just being Rodney.

Larger than life was an apt description for Rodney. We met while both students at Millikin in his hometown of Decatur, IL, after joining the same fraternity. Rodney was a good student, sharp and insightful, but an extraordinary swimmer. Six time NCAA Division III Champion/multiple All-American in several events level of extraordinary. Add in the see-all–the-girls-stop-and-gawk looks to the brains and athleticism and he was the kind of guy we mere mortals could easily resent if not for the fact he was just so damned nice! The nicest person in our class? No, that was probably the woman he would later marry, Karla.

I lost touch with Rodney after graduation, except for the occasional wedding of mutual friends, but often thought of tracking him down with a call or email, especially since we had both ended up in the same profession. I never followed through - there will always be another day, right? - and was left with only reflections of the garrulous, funny, friendly kid I knew almost two decades before as I drove to Decatur for the funeral.

The turnout at a police funeral is usually large, but I was surprised at the vast number of squads when I arrived at the assembly point, with representative from all across not only Illinois, but states as far away as Arkansas. As I began circulating among a group officers and deputies from central Illinois, it became very apparent how far Rodney's reach extended. In that area of our state, a mix of small and mid-sized cities, tiny towns, and wide open rural areas, multijurisdictional cooperation is essential and a state police investigator will get to know and work closely with a range of officers from a variety of agencies.

While it seemed most of them in the group I found had worked a case with Rodney at some point or another it was clear they were not there just out of respect for a brother LEO, or because of a professional connection developed during an investigation. This was personal. Each of them genuinely liked Rodney, and the pain they felt was for that of a lost personal friend. They spoke of his laugh, of his sense of humor, of his excitement for the job, of his genuine enthusiasm for just having the opportunity to meet you, and for the sense that you opened a case as colleagues and closed it as friends. They spoke of his kindness. Some who knew him best even spoke of the love and pride he had for Karla and his boys, and was eager to express to anyone who would listen. They all seemed to agree: Rodney was not just a good guy... he was a great guy!

They say law enforcement changes a person. Maybe, but that sure sounded a lot like the Rodney I knew so many years before.

There are a lot of cops who excel on the job but lead lackluster, sometimes even failing, personal lives. There are great men and women of first-rate character and talent who, for one reason or another, would founder in law enforcement. Our job is simply not for everyone and that's okay. A legacy of success can be in any area, and need not cross all aspects of a life. For those who can excel as both cop and citizen, imagine the possibilities of building, nurturing, and leaving a legacy to be truly proud of. The fact is, personal and professional success together is probably the norm for most officers but their stories will rarely be told.

We started this series on legacies with the story of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his fall and conviction on federal obstruction of justice and perjury charges earlier this year (Our Fragile Legacies linked below). His is a name that will forever define a period in Chicago police history and that creates a visceral image for millions of people who have never even met him personally.

Scandal sticks while memories of heroism soon fade, and the everyday heroism of showing up and steadfastly doing what is right escapes renown altogether. Worse, a momentary lapse may be all it takes to topple the legacy you are building. Cops live life in the public eye but our daily successes, whether at work or home, are usually hidden from the public that thinks they really see us; all the more reason to jealously care for and guard our honor.

Not all scandal is big, either. Most can be quite small. A callous word to a citizen - or even a suspect - can mar the image of every cop. Like it or not, you represent me, and I you, on every citizen encounter. I can honestly say that I have used unnecessarily sharp words, or shown impatience or indifference in moments of weakness, and unfairly hurt people. I am sorry I have done that - for who I have acted that way toward, and for the brothers and sisters whose image I might have tarnished just a little. Being more self-aware and patient is something I always need to work toward.

2010 has been a sad year for American law enforcement with an unusually high number of line of duty assaults and deaths, and the Chicago Police Department has already lost four officers whose fine legacies were revealed in the tragedy of their deaths:

Sgt Alan Haymaker died responding to an in-progress burglary when his squad slid on icy roads and crashed. He was a third generation Chicago cop, but had policing had been a career move; he was first an associate pastor of an evangelical church. He continued to use his ministerial gifts as a cop, especially as a mentor to younger officers and meeting with a community of other officers of faith.

Ofc Thomas Wortham IV had stopped by his parents' house to show them his new motorcycle, a gift to himself after just returning from his second tour of duty in Iraq. As he was leaving, four thugs attempted to rob him of his new bike, he identified himself as a police officer, and gunfire was exchanged. Wortham was fatally struck, as was one of the gunmen when Wortham's father, a retired CPD sergeant, entered the fight.

Ofc Thor Odin Soderberg was leaving his shift when a mentally ill man with a history of violence ambushed, disarmed, and shot him with his own weapon. Other officers quickly shot and wounded the offender. Soderberg was a long-time academy instructor, an Army veteran, and tri-athlete. He spent much time with a close friend, a blind DePaul University Professor, whom he coached and guided in triathlons.

For Ofc Michael Bailey police work was a second career. He joined the CPD after retiring from twenty years as a Glenview, IL firefighter and was a month away from retiring again when he was the victim of an attempted carjacking. He was known as "Big Mike" in his neighborhood, not for his size - he was not very big physically - but for his influence as a neighbor and friend, and was an accomplished martial artist.

It often seems the hidden honor of a police officer is only publicly revealed in his or her untimely loss, and then that cop's dedication to service is surprising in its depth. The truth is, what is revealed is just a slice of what runs through most of us. The true and lasting legacy of honor will be built slowly, brick by brick, in the mundane aspects of the job and personal life. It is built on being a good spouse and parent, and raising your families in a tradition of servant hood. It is built on duty and steadfastness. It is built with each act of compassion, on each positive community contact, on each genuine show of concern for someone else's problem and sincere effort to do something about it. It is built on every time you make someone good glad to see the police, and someone bad sorry. It is built on firm fairness. It is built on knowing not just what needs to be done but what should be, and then doing it.

We owe it to ourselves to concentrate on the legacies we are building, to ensure they are the kind we will look back on with pride. Even more, we owe it to the communities that rely on us, and to those - like Rodney Miller, Alan Haymaker, Thomas Wortham, Thor Soderberg, Michael Bailey, and all the others who have gone before us - who have reflected well on us through their service.