Some footprints in the snow

Randy Riley - Contributing Columnist

There was a light cover of snow on the ground.

After he left for work that evening, you could see his footprints in the back yard. The footprints were headed toward town, toward his work. When the sun came up the next morning, there were no footprints showing that Patrolman Emery McCreight had come home from work.

That was 94 years ago. His widow and two daughters would mourn their loss until the day they died.

Even today, when a police officer is putting on their blue uniform, strapping on their vest and adjusting their utility belt, each and every officer shares the same number-one priority. Their goal is to do their job well. But their top priority is to get home — to be with their family at the end of the day.

Sadly, that doesn’t always happen.

In 1922, Wilmington was in the process of transitioning from a village to a city. For the first time in our history, instead of having an elected town marshal, the city would have an appointed chief of police. Mayor Richard Greene surprised quite a few people when he appointed Rollo Kirk to be the city’s first chief of police. At the same January council meeting where the mayor appointed Kirk, city council members began their discussion about police department staffing.

Eventually, it was settled that two officers would be needed to patrol the city at night. The job of night patrol was assigned to patrol officer Emery McCreight and his partner, patrolman Hank Adams. Before the next month ended, both officers would be wounded. Patrolman McCreight would not survive his wounds.

Just before midnight, on a cold, snowy night in February, Emery McCreight and Hank Adams saw two men in the alley just west of the United Methodist Church. They were near the back door, at the rear of the Murphy-Benham Hardware story that faced South Street.

When asked what they were doing there, one of the men said something about a lost dog. As McCreight shined the beam of his flashlight on the two men, one of them fired his pistol at the officers.

McCreight was shot in the abdomen. Adams was slightly wounded in the shoulder. Emery McCreight fell into the arms of his partner. As Hank Adams held his mortally wounded partner, the two burglars escaped. People quickly responded to Hank’s shouts for help.

Within a short while, Emery was in surgery at Dr. Kelly Hale’s small hospital at the northeast corner of Locust and Spring streets. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, Emery McCreight died. He died in the line of duty.

We must never forget the sacrifices that are made by law enforcement officers and their families, as they work to keep the peace and to protect citizens from those who are intent on breaking the law.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation which designated May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day. The week in which that date falls is observed nationally as Police Week.

This day gives us an opportunity to honor the men and women who have served our community and, especially, to honor those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice — men like Emery McCreight and Marshal Van Dorn.

Over 130 years ago, Marshal John T. Van Doren served this community as our marshal. He was 73 years old when he died after being shot on the streets of Wilmington.

At the age when most people were thinking about slowing down, John Van Doren was starting a new career as our elected marshal. He was in his early 60s when he won the election. Twelve years later, Marshal Van Doren responded to an unruly, intoxicated person near the corner of Locust Street and South Street.

They scuffled. The marshal was knocked to the ground. As he braced himself to stand up in the middle of the old, dirt road he was shot in the head. The marshal was carried into a downtown pharmacy to be treated for his wound. His wound was grave. He died on the wooden floor of that pharmacy.

By coincidence, the location of that pharmacy is now where the Wilmington City Police Department has located their detective’s division.

By all reports, Marshal Van Doren was an extraordinary man. An article in the March 21, 1884 edition of the Clinton County Democrat described him as, ‘”small in stature, but very active in his movements. He possessed the requisite ‘sand’ to fearlessly perform his duty under any and all circumstances. He was kind-hearted, very gentlemanly and lenient, both as a citizen and an officer, yet he was firm and determined. His language was ever mild and his treatment of prisoners was always humane.”

Marshal John T. Van Doren died in 1884. Patrolman Emery McCrieght died in 1922. Every year, somewhere in the United States, families are mourning the loss of loved ones who died in the line of duty.

We must never forget the sacrifices being made by the men and women wearing the blue of law enforcement.

Every day, their footprints lead to work where they serve us; the public. But, they do not always return home.

Honor our law enforcement officers. Keep them in your prayers.

Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.

Randy Riley

Contributing Columnist