FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- While the dream of wearing a badge pops into the mind of many a young person, Gabe Rich began talking it up as a 3-year-old -- and never stopped.
"I have nothing against the police, but I could never figure out why he was so drawn to it," said Dave Rich, his father. "I mean, he was born to be a policeman."
Patty Rich, his mother, noticed Gabe's enthusiasm as well. You can see it in the family photo that shows Gabe at age 3 or 4 on a visit to Sayre, Penn., playing in the front seat of a police car while holding a police baton and wearing a policeman's hat.
An appreciation of the role of police in society even found its way into his childhood dramas.
Patty remembers the day when Gabe was about 5 that a broken window appeared in a concrete block building near their home just outside of Fairbanks near Chena Hot Springs Road. Patty thought she knew who was the culprit. She mentioned something about how the rock used to break the window was being checked by the police for fingerprints.
That was all it took. Tears formed in Gabe's eyes, and a trembling chin jutted out.
"I did it, Mom," he confessed. "I'm sorry."
Patty said Gabe believed the police were great at tracking down criminals, and he felt bad for what he had done.
North Pole police officer
Other than the rock episode, Gabe survived childhood with a pretty clean record, which helped him achieve his childhood dream. During his teenage years in Fairbanks, Gabe had plenty of fun, but he was careful not to do anything that would jeopardize his career plans. A graduate of Lathrop High School, Gabe completed the Fairbanks Law Enforcement Academy at age 20 and joined the North Pole Police Department a year later.
He advanced to the Alaska State Troopers in 2011 and served with distinction until he was killed in the line of duty in a shooting in Tanana last week. He was 26.
Thousands of people are expected to attend a memorial service in Fairbanks Saturday afternoon for Gabe and trooper Sgt. Scott Johnson, who was also killed in the attack.
I first met Gabe about the time of the broken-window caper when his parents signed him up for soccer, and I was coaching. My daughter played on the team, as did Gabe. He was one of the few who did not spend most of the game picking dandelions, but he could play herd ball with the best of them.
But it was hockey, not soccer, that he came to love.
As a young teenager he played on a team that went to the nationals in Philadelphia, coached by Roger McKinnon of Fairbanks.
McKinnon still has the photo in his Fairbanks sports shop in which Gabe wrote that even while riding the bench, he kept a good attitude. "I am not a quitter, and thanks to you I will never stop trying," he wrote. His parents and his fiancee, Angie Taylor, said those qualities defined his character.
Gabe and Angie have a 14-month-old son, Lenox, and Gabe was in the process of adopting Angie's 8-year-old, Malakai. He was a terrific father, Angie said. "He was proud of them, and he was proud to be a dad," she said. "There was nothing he wouldn't do to see them smile."
Tracking down his own history
After Lenox was born, Gabe developed a stronger interest in his own family history. For as long as he could remember, he knew that he had been born in Sayre, Penn., and was adopted at birth by Dave and Patty. They told him what they knew -- that his birth mother loved him but was unable to care for him. They loved him, too, and they were able to care for him.
Dave and Patty had tried without success for 12 years to have children and were ecstatic in 1987 at the chance to raise Gabe, who reached Fairbanks when he was 10 days old.
Last fall, Dave and Patty traveled back to the town where they grew up and tried, at Gabe's request, so see if they could find something out about his birth mother. Through a series of friends and family connections, they found her name and passed it along to Gabe, who looked her up on the Internet. Gabe talked to her on the phone and exchanged emails, but he never got the chance to meet her. She arrived in Fairbanks Tuesday to attend his memorial, one of many in his extended family.
One last thing: She is a Pennsylvania State Trooper, lending credence to the notion that he was born to be a police officer.
Copyright 2014 - Anchorage Daily News
McClatchy-Tribune News Service