At officer's funeral, a measure of redemption

This Just In...

February 11, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

A MAN extended his right hand from the second pew of Reisterstown United Methodist Church and rocked an infant in a plastic baby carrier on the carpeted main aisle, just a few feet from the coffin of Sgt. Bruce Prothero. Another man rose from the first pew, clutching the sergeant's 6-year-old daughter, Holly Kathleen, all pretty dress and long blond hair. There were several more children seated in the pews -- nieces and nephews of the sergeant mixed in with women in overcoats, men in dark suits and police officers in navy-blue uniforms. Little children seemed everywhere in the church, sprinkled among mourners like bright confetti.

Children, childhood and the power of family are everywhere in the breathtaking tragedy of Bruce Prothero -- a good-natured man, honorable and devoted police officer, married, five children, killed while moonlighting. Prothero was one of eight kids himself, and his siblings, wife and father-in-law stood among his eulogists yesterday, and perhaps never have words spoken over a police officer's coffin been so heartbreaking.

And so redeeming.

First there was the widow, brave Ann Warman Prothero, standing at the lectern and clutching her throat, pushing her heart through words to read a letter she had written her husband this week, after his death chasing robbers out a jewelry store: "Dearest Bruce . . . not enough words to tell you how much I love you . . . our children -- the greatest gift of all . . . jumped for joy when you walked through the door . . . We are in good hands. . . . You left us so much. . . . I love you."

If only we could harness the power of that moment -- if everyone could hear the voice of the police sergeant's widow -- we might change the hearts of men.

If everyone everywhere knew such love in their lives, we could be spared the violence that infests our great society.

If everyone lived by Bruce Prothero's example, we might have a better world.

That's what his family told us yesterday with their stories about him. That's what we took away from the funeral.

The oldest brother, Rick, reconstructed the life for us by describing with affection and humor Bruce Prothero's childhood in Rockville -- youngest of the clan, "the caboose on an eight-kid train," wrapped in well-worn hand-me-downs, some of them from sisters and, as a result, "suspiciously feminine."

"He couldn't even get a matching set of ears," Rick said, and there was that good laughter-through-tears everyone craves on days like that.

"There was no room in the house for him, either," Rick said. "Bruce slept in a crib in our parents' room until he was 5. In kindergarten, you have to be pretty tough to explain those sleeping arrangements to your playmates."

Little Bruce endured teases and practical jokes with grace and humor. His oldest sister, Pam, used to scoop him up and, through his squeals and kicks, pretend she was going to put him in the oven. Through all that, the little brother developed a tenacious character, and a talent for diplomacy, Rick Prothero said.

He had the gift of "spontaneous compassion" and great sensitivity to the needs of others.

He was an optimist. No challenge too great.

He had unwavering faith in God.

He had a passion to serve.

He died while serving.

"He led from behind," Rick Prothero said. "He rallied from within. He followed his conscience and his dreams. We stand in awe of our little brother. . . . He made us see the world in bright colors and try a little harder. . . . We did not know the caboose could push from behind. Now, we know better."

Pam remembered him as a "happy, sweet, little boy." Another sister, Lisa, remembered a marathon they trained for, but missed.

His father-in-law, John Warman, remembered Bruce showing up at his house when he was a teen-ager for a date with his daughter, Ann. Bruce was driving a hand-me-down, "theoretically yellow" Chevy Nova.

The first date was a movie, "Chariots of Fire." That was in April 1982. Bruce and Ann were married after college in Towson, in June 1988. The children started arriving in 1993, first Holly Kathleen, then in 1996 the triplets we've heard so much about this week -- Parker Nelson, Andrew John and Kimberly Hope. Another daughter, Hannah Elizabeth, arrived in February two years ago.

Almost every time he approached his son-in-law, John Warman said, Bruce had a child in his arm, and often one in each hand. Bruce could stand there and chat, and "sort out two or three other family problems," the whole while holding a child. "He was good at that," John Warman said with wonder. "The kids could hang in the air like that."

The kids had more fun in their backyard with their father than they ever would have had in a trip to Disney World.

And there was more laughter in the church.

But laughter only briefly.

The sadness returned in an instant. Too many children in the church. Too many police officers standing at attention and casting long shadows on Reisterstown Road, in front of the church. Too many memories of other police officers' funerals. Too many widows. Too many guns. Too much violence. Too many scars over too many years in this place we call home.

And now another good man gone.

John Warman, the father-in-law, helped everyone with the wisest, most redeeming words of the day. Bruce Prothero lived life fully, with joy, with commitment, with honor, with love. "If we want to make the most of this life," John Warman said, "we should try to live the way he did . . . love each other . . . with joy and energy . . . hold nothing back."

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