United in grief as nation set for tribute to fallen Willoughby officer
“Any excuse I get to go to Washington, D.C., I’m there.”
I’d laugh, the other person would laugh, and we’d continue on our discussion about something related to our nation’s capital.
Turns out, as the saying goes, “there’s a grain of truth behind every joke.”
With me, there’s little doubt that my joke really is true.
You see, in four of the past five years, I’ve spent a week there while on vacation.
Because I tossed a little work in the middle of each one, it would be more accurate to say I bookended vacations there four of the past five years.
Last year’s excursion involved a charity bike ride into Judiciary Square in memory of fallen police officers.
The Police Unity Tour began in 1997 as a ride from New Jersey to Washington, as an effort to honor the sacrifices of those who died in the line of duty.
Since then, it’s grown from just a few riders to more than 1,500 taking part each year. The ride that raised $18,000 in the first year to fund a permanent museum in honor of fallen officers, raised $1.6 million in 2012.
Last year, I followed a Mentor rider, Michael T. Rae, who is an attorney for the United States Postal Service Inspection Service. He and his passionate group of fellow riders from the United States, Canada and Great Britain have been taking part for a few years now. (For my story from last year’s ride, go to: bit.ly/PUT2012)
While I’d describe the culmination of the ride as breathtaking, with an endless stream of two-wheelers heading up E Street toward the memorial as the riders wave to cheers from thousands gathered along the roadway, nothing can prepare you for a vigil that takes place at the same spot the following night.
Loved ones of those lost in the line of duty are escorted to their seats by off-duty police officers who volunteer for the solemn duty. They take the arms of the widows, mothers, daughters and sisters, and shake the hands of husbands, fathers, sons and brothers of those who’ve died the previous year while serving as a law enforcement officer.
At the culmination of an event that last year featured addresses from FBI Director Eric Holder and Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano, the families listen as their loved one’s name is read to the crowd, along with their “end of watch” date.
Those who know me well can tell you I’m a crier. And they’ll say that it often happens without warning.
I was no match for this event, which began with a haunting rendition of the National Anthem and included a stunning display overhead of the “thin blue line” often used to describe police work.
It’ll be even more difficult this year, as some of our neighbors are remembered at this year’s race.
Just a few months after last year’s race ended, I was thrilled to find out Barb Apanites, a Cleveland Heights resident who is the daughter of a fallen police officer from Wickliffe, would be taking part in this year’s ride.
Last year, Apanites and her mom, Jackie Hlivak of Willowick, were on hand when Rae finished his ride and handed over bracelets he wore bearing the names of Apanites’ father, John, and Hlivak’s late second husband, Richard, who had served on the Cleveland Police force with John Apanites.
Barb will be riding in memory of fallen Bedford Heights Police officer William Prochazka, who was the father of Willowick Sgt. Robert Prochazka.
Prochazka said he was shocked by Apanites’ gesture.
“It’s a wonderful gesture on her part,” said Prochazka, who is about to begin his 20th year on the Willowick force. “I was overwhelmed.”
The pair have yet to meet, but he’ll be on hand when she crosses the finish line for the handing over of the bracelets.
He’d heard of the ride before this year, but has never been to Washington, and is looking forward to seeing his father’s name on the monument for the first time.
“Barb and I talked over the phone, and we have a lot in common,” he said. “Because of the parole hearings for her father, and my father, we had a lot to talk about.”
Prochazka’s dad died Nov. 10, 1975, when he and his partner interrupted a robbery in progress at Blonder’s Paint Store at Southgate Shopping Center. Robert Prochazka was 9 years old when his father was killed.
Not long after Apanites announced she was planning to ride — on Sept. 21, 2012 — the Police Unity Tour became even more relevant. That’s the day Willoughby Police Officer Jason Gresko died while responding to a call.
Gresko also served as a Cleveland Clinic Police officer, and will have one of his fellow officers, Ryan Myers, riding in his memory next week.
Gresko’s name will be heard among the 321 names added to National Fallen Police Officers Memorial for 2012. The list includes 120 officers who died last year and 201 who died in prior years.
Four Ohioans were added for 2012. In addition to Gresko are two Bluffton officers who died in the 1920s and an Akron officer who died in January of 2012.
In case you’re headed to Washington and want to pay your respects to Gresko at the monument, his name can be found on Panel 15 East, Line 18. Prochazka’s name is on Panel 15 West, Line 1.
Police Unity Tour is a test of endurance for the men and women who take part. The 300 miles they ride, two by two, mirroring that same “thin blue line” I mentioned above, is a labor of love, raising money for a museum dedicated to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the protection of the towns they serve.
As they pedal off to honor those lost in 2012, it’s important to remember our Northeast Ohio sons who will forever be heroes for the work they did and the protection they gave.