Families gather to mourn heroes, reaffirm their worth


AT WEEK'S END, at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Baltimore County, came the families of the fallen. Many return every year now, a sweet extended family of mourners, a community of the bereaved, gathered for what is now the 14th annual Fallen Heroes Day.

Their people went down protecting others. They were police or firefighters, or correctional officers or rescue personnel, and this annual day at the cemetery, with officers gathered from all over the state, is a way of remembering, and of restating the obvious: Their dying wasn't in vain, and their lives counted for something.

"It never really goes away," Helen Renshaw was saying as the big crowd gathered Friday afternoon. Gov. Parris Glendening was there, and Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger and City Council President Lawrence Bell and Attorney General Joe Curran, and all manner of police and firefighters from across the state.

And Helen Renshaw, tucked into her little folding chair, and into her memories, looked back over 15 years, to the last time she recalled seeing her brother. He was Henry Raynor Jr., and he was a Baltimore County firefighter, 32 years old, and he went into a burning furniture store on Holabird Avenue in 1984, and his life ended there.

"He had two little children," Helen Renshaw said now. Her voice was wistful. "And the captain came and knocked on the door, and, of course, that was it. He was bringing us the bad news."

The words trailed away and then choked off. The sadness is a shadow that lingers through the years. Near her stood Wayne Martin, whose brother Bill was a city cop who answered a 911 emergency call 10 years ago on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Fifteen-oh-two Pennsylvania Avenue," said Martin. "Oh, I still remember everything. They shot him twice in the head, and once when he hit the floor. The worst, worst thing in the world. And they come and they tell you, and then you've got to tell the others. Two boys, 2 and 13, he left behind. You never get over it."

So they come here every year now, those who lost loved ones, and those who wear a uniform today and wonder about their own fate. In a time of gunfire in Colorado, in a time when lunatics who live in our own communities issue bomb threats to frighten children, emotions are naturally heightened.

Around the fringes of the crowd Friday were police recruits. Some of them still wore innocence on their scrubbed faces. Some looked barely old enough to shave.

"They look young, don't they?" Joe Ehrmann said. Ehrmann's the former Baltimore Colt lineman who's the Rev. Joe Ehrmann now. He gave the invocation at Friday's service. He's been shepherding kids in East Baltimore, running his foundation called The Door, trying to keep youngsters from lives that lead to police contact.

Ehrmann grew up in Buffalo and comes from a long line of police and firefighters. There was an uncle who lost his life fighting one blaze, when Ehrmann was a child, and he still remembers the funeral procession.

"We drove past the firehouse," he said. "And there were all the men in uniform, with their white gloves on, and everybody saluting. Those things stay with you."

Most of us stand on the sidelines of life's dangers. We think about these folks when the going gets particularly rough, but they're taken for granted most of the time. Maybe it's a sign that they do their jobs right.

But, as the big crowd sat there Friday, there were some who remembered a man who got away from us last week, named Frank Battaglia, who once was city police commissioner. He was 85 when he died. He was 68 when he got the top job, after serving 42 years on the force.

And there was the time, a few days after he'd finally become commissioner, when Battaglia sat in his office and looked back on his years in the department, and the things that moved him.

"I've seen my officers shot," he said softly, "and I've seen my officers shoot people, and I've seen them shaking like leaves, going to pieces."

Sometimes there's a thin line between who lives and who dies. The final scenes are played and replayed in the middle of endless nights, and those who are left ask themselves: Was it worth it? Does anybody out there care?

And that's why they gather each year at the Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens: not only to remind each other that people care, but to remember those who conducted their lives as something greater than the sum of their own egos. They were part of a community, which has value and vulnerabilities, and the Fallen Heroes went down protecting all of that.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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