I read with humor all of the “May the Fourth” Star Wars puns. Along with Pi day (March 14th) and others like it keeps us amused. However, May 4th has a much different significance for me. Even after fifty years since it occurred, a life event keeps May 4th a sobering time for my family.
On May 4, 1969, my dad, a Birmingham police officer, gave the ultimate sacrifice. He died from a gunshot wound while attempting to stop a burglary. Every time I think of that day I wish he had just let the men take the $50 lawn mowers they were trying to steal. It is pointless to lose a life over a hundred bucks worth of merchandise. But that was not the oath he took when he swore to uphold the law and protect the citizens of Birmingham.
I was only nine years old at the time. I have very few vivid memories of my dad. The ones I do have are of him helping others … always! He was the handyman for several widows that lived near us. He was a deacon at his church. He sang in the choir at church. He was the Cub Master for the local Cub Scout Pack. He was Assistant Scout Master at the local Boy Scout Troop. He volunteered at the local ballpark as an umpire for baseball games. His closet had more uniforms than street clothes.
He was also father to five kids, husband to his only wife, and cared for his elderly mother who lived 50 miles away. He was only forty-two years old. That seemed ancient at the time, but now that I’m about to turn sixty, I realize how much life he still had ahead of him. But, that all changed that Sunday morning. His focus that day was not on preserving his life, or insuring the happiness of his family, but instead carrying out the duty he had sworn to protect and serve.
He was not the only officer killed that year in Birmingham. When he died my mother became a member of a kind of sorority to which she did not willingly join. The widows of fallen officers would meet from time to time. They became linked by common tragedy.
Even though we were financially better off because of all of the support from the community, the City, State, and even federal support, it was no substitute for having a father, a husband, a son, and a friend in the man, Azell Leroy Harris.
That name is now memorialized at the City of Birmingham Police Memorial and also in Washington, D.C., at the National Police Memorial, and on several websites that honor fallen officers. I’m grateful for that. But I regret that my children, and their children will never know the man that name represents. He still lives, however, in the hearts of those that knew him.