Sergeant's Funeral Ties Community Together

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The word religion comes from the Latin re, which means "to do again," and ligare, "to bind or tie." In its literal meaning, religion is that which continually binds together. We see this in rites of passage, weddings, baptisms, at times of crisis, in natural disasters, and at funerals. The funeral of police Sergeant Doug Johnson was an exquisite "religious" experience in how it bound people together during this time of need.

I did not know Officer Johnson, but I attended his funeral out of support and respect for the men and women of the Payson Police Department and the often dangerous services they render. I also attended because Father Jack Wilson, the former vicar of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, officiated at the funeral.

Prior to moving to Colorado, he served as chaplain for the Payson Police Department and the Arizona Highway Patrol. He had been the clergyman and friend to the Payson PD, and to the Payson community, at times of professional and personal crisis and celebration. That he, after a five-year absence, traveled 800 miles for this memorial is an example of the many ways which Johnson, and the deeply moving funeral in his honor, brought people together.

The service was held at the Payson High School Auditorium. The twin flags of the American Stars and Stripes and the Arizona beams of sky and sun stood on either side of the stage. Bouquets and stands of fresh flowers, brilliant in color, surrounded Johnson's official police portrait.

The distant sound of bagpipes heralded the approach of the entrance procession. As the music grew louder, heads turned toward it in anticipation of the painful but needed ceremony which was to come. With the appearance of the piper, mournful tunes filled the auditorium as 1,000 people came to their feet. Somber police officers, in their pressed blues, accompanied the Johnson family. The pallbearers were all uniformed police officers who embraced this detail of carrying the flag-draped casket of their friend and brother.

After a greeting from Payson Police Chaplain Kevin Gay, the ceremony unfolded in song, speech and photographs.

On a professional level, the binding together of people in need was evidenced by the presence of more than 20 law enforcement agencies from across Arizona. Because Johnson was a firefighter and an Air Force veteran, the U.S. Forest Service, Arizona Game and Fish, and U.S. Air Force were represented. The Arizona Department of Public Service took over the duties of the Payson Police so that all could attend the funeral.

The man he was

From a community perspective, business people, teachers, city, county, and state administrators joined the family in remembrance and prayer. All were invited to write "Memories of Doug" on individual papers provided. These were collected and given to the family as gifts from the diverse facets and faces of Payson life impacted by Officer Johnson.

Young people from the D.A.R.E. program honored in song the officer who tied childhood naivetith adult savvy and accountability. Each face was perfectly poised in uncertainty and sadness, their clear, bright eyes unwavering upon their music director.

A presentation tied together the varied aspects of Johnson's life and talents. We saw him as a child opening presents under the Christmas tree with his parents and brothers, as a teenager infatuated with fast, flashy cars, as an Air Force weapons specialist in fatigues, a firefighter in a canary-yellow work shirt, and as a policeman in blues. In each role, fun and pranks were as prevalent as responsibility and commitment. But the photographs of him with his wife, Theresa and the four children conveyed the solid and loving center of his life marriage and fatherhood.

Sergeant Don Garvin delivered the eulogy with pressured speech in rapid tempo as if the time allowed was not enough. Some memories triggered waves of emotion which choked his words. He cleared his throat, paused, collected himself and resumed his message.

Reading a letter written by Johnson's brother, Garvin tied Johnson's upbringing and youthful interests with the character, passions and style which endeared him to so many in his adulthood.

Jessica O'Donnell, Johnson's step-daughter, was a testament to the guilt and pain of love unspoken.

"I never got to tell him thank you and tell him I loved him. If you love someone, tell them now. Tomorrow may never come." Her regretful warning bound her grief and our compassion, families of blood with the families of heart, human weaknesses with nobility and grace.

Cody O'Donnell echoed his sister's pain when he said, "Be thankful for who you have next to you."

Father Jack recounted how his granddaughter, Sarah, then 16- years old, rode with the police one night while visiting Payson. Johnson, expecting to be her mentor and protector, was taken aback when she tactfully began interpreting in fluent Spanish a dialogue with suspects he had stopped. Impressed and amused, he canceled his request for a police interpreter. Truly saddened when Father Jack told her of Johnson's death, Sarah recalled, "He was so nice to me."

"We never know, do we, how we affect others," he said. "But because of Doug's kindness to a 16-year-old kid 10 years ago, there is now a 26-year-old woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee whose heart and mind are with us today. "

With Johnson's badge, S121, beside him on the podium, Father Jack spoke of the mystery of life and death. He bound together the pain of grief with the joy of enrichment for having been a part of Johnson's life. To remember, rejoice and release is the way to have him with us always, even as we accept the need to move on.

"Keep him in your hearts," he said, "and let him go."

He left the podium and reached down from the stage to Theresa Johnson. Touching her hand, he returned her husband's badge to her. The gesture bound their years and tears to the time he had touched their hands as he joined them in marriage, and it acknowledged Johnson's commitment to both his marriage and civic vows.

"This is Doug's badge, the symbol of his sworn vow 'to serve and to protect,'" Father Jack said. "Doug wore it with integrity, courage, and honor. Theresa, I give it to you to keep as one visible reminder of the kind of man Doug was."

Final call

With the conclusion of the memorial service, the funeral procession made its way to Mountain Meadows Memorial Park.

There, the American flag at the cemetery had been lowered to half staff. Taps was played. The bagpipes mourned. Father Jack prayed, "Depart, dear child of God, out of this world. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God."

All was quiet. People were solemn and sad, when the static of a police radio was suddenly heard over the loud speaker.

"SAM 121," a woman's voice proclaimed, "Respond to heaven. Our Heavenly Father has advised you have completed your assigned duties on earth. - Break.

"Sam 121, you have been a loving son, loyal husband, and nurturing father. You have been a wonderful friend to all who have had the honor of knowing you. - Break.

"SAM 121, you have fought the good fight and stayed the true course. You have been a brave and noble warrior who walked the thin blue line with honor and bravery that set the example for all to follow. - Break

"SAM 121, as each day passes you will remain in our hearts and prayers knowing that this world in which we live is a better place because of your short time here with us. - Break

"All units break for a moment of silence.

"Sergeant Doug Johnson, your shift is complete and you are cleared to secure to an eternal life of peace and happiness in the house of our Lord.

"Good day, Sir."

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