Kids and cops a colossal mix at Coeburn Primary

Stephen Igo • Aug 31, 2016 at 2:06 PM

COEBURN — It’s probably safe to say there wasn’t another group of law enforcement officers in America living larger than the bunch who graced, and were graced by, the classrooms of Coeburn Primary School on Wednesday.

The school staged a Law Enforcement Officer Appreciation Day, much to the delight of kids and cops alike. Little ones are an endless, gushing wellspring of pure innocence and wide-eyed wonder, of course, but on Wednesday one could actually see the unimaginable burdens and responsibilities borne by police officers on their endless quest to protect and serve become suddenly, sweetly weightless.

I have always considered it an honor and a privilege to be in the company of police officers. In my career role as a newspaper reporter, that’s been quite a lot of years’ worth of honor and privilege. One thing I learned just from dealing with police officers, they aren’t automatons. They are men and women with hopes, dreams, families and friends, and a desire to do good for their communities and fellow citizens and, thus, the world.

My overwhelming lifetime experience taught me that police officers are not especially eager to give anyone a hard time who doesn’t first give them one. They are just like the rest of us, for gosh sakes. Who wants a hard day on the job? Especially one that might and too often does include encounters of impoliteness if not life-threatening danger?

The only hazards at Coeburn Primary School, however, were impromptu hugs from children. While being escorted through the school to the start of Wednesday’s shindig by tall, rangy and thoroughly affable CPS School Resource Officer Wise County Sheriff's Lt. Keith Crabtree, we passed by a chatty pack of bright eyed wonderment in a hallway. Crabtree was greeted by high-fives and smiles and cheery greetings all down the line.

It was clear he represented no symbol of uniformed intimidation or oppression to those kids. He is their protector, their mentor, their role model, their friend. Shucks, other than curious glances, they ignored the heck out of me. News reporters just don’t rate, but, let’s face it, next to a police officer that is perfectly understandable.

The school’s special day for law enforcement officers came about as a suggestion from CPS secretary Penny Greear, herself the daughter of the late Roger C. Cooke, a highly regarded Norton Police Department officer who died in 2012 with the rank of captain.

Personally heartsick at all the dire issues that swirl around the law enforcement profession lately, Greear wanted to do something special in honor of her father by honoring all officers, something Capt. Cooke would certainly salute and then some.

“We just want to encourage and show support for our law enforcement officers and what they do in our communities, and we hope to continue this throughout the school year,” Greear said. “My dad was all about children. He was all about keeping this community safe for all, especially the children he lived for and loved.”

That CPS Principal Marsha Christian endorsed Greear’s appreciation day notion was evident by her enthusiasm and the fact it was happening at all, and in a big way, too. The school was festooned with child-created artwork and balloons and more. Toss in a classroom by classroom horde of adoring knee- and waist-high fans, and the word “appreciation” hardly begins to describe how special the welcome this group of officers enjoyed.

“We just want to educate our kids,” said Christian, “that if ever they have a time of need, go to a police officer. We want them to know police officers are their friends and that we appreciate them every day.”

On a personal note, I couldn’t help but grin when I saw Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. Jack Baldridge waltz into the room. I have encountered Baldridge many times over the years and from the first, couldn't suppress a grin. As I’ve told him more times than either of us would want to count, Baldridge just reminds me of every Marine Corps drill instructor I ever knew, once upon a time in a land far, far away.

Baldridge just has the countenance and, even more improbably, the face of a Marine D.I. I have Parris Island flashbacks every time I lay eyes on him. Hollywood couldn’t find a more perfect face to depict the Corps than Baldridge. On Wednesday when I reminded him of that, yet again, he laughed and gave me an “Ooh-Rah!”

Baldridge, a 30-year VSP trooper, is certainly way more personable than the Marine D.I.’s whose company I, um, once enjoyed. Then again, their role as D.I. and mine as a shrimpy, nation’s least likely John Wayne-ish, what the heck have I got myself into now? recruit, did not include pampered pals in the job description, I suppose.

“Let’s all go quaff a beer after a hard day” — there were easy ones? — with the D.I.’s on Parris Island never happened, of course, but I guess the Corps just didn’t think to include that bit in the training manual. Which these days I am almost sure was a good thing. But just almost.

After getting our Marine D.I. bit out of the way, Baldridge, as usual, got down to cases.

“This,” he said, “is an important event. Things like this help with our relationships with younger kids and shows them that police officers are here to help them, and if they have any problems come up, go to a police officer. We can’t say how much we appreciate Coeburn Primary having us here today. It means a lot. A lot more than there are words to describe. And that’s a whole lot of a lot.”

Wise County Sheriff's Sgt. J. Roop said he was basking “in just the fact they are willing to be supportive of us, means the world. There’s not so much of that around, unfortunately, today.”

In his second year as an SRO, Crabtree acknowledged he has the best cop beat around.

“The staff and especially the kids here, they really go out of their way each and every day to make me feel welcome and part of the family,” he said.

“They really outdo themselves to make all police officers welcome in our schools. The kids are great. They are so awesome; that’s the only word for them I can use. They’re always talking to me, greeting me, asking what we do. They’re really glad you’re here. They’re like, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ What’s not to love? The kids really are just awesome.”

The fact the officers appreciated their special appreciation day was not difficult to perceive. Just about the brightest part of being at CPS Wednesday, other than the kids, were the robust, easy smiles on the faces of each and every officer right from the get-go.

“It’s more than just a little overwhelming, actually,” said Norton P.D. 1st Sgt. Greg J. Mays. “And I must say, not just at this school and not just this day. The appreciation and support we receive from the people of this area is just unreal. We are lucky. We get overwhelming support from the people all around the county. It makes it easier to come to work when you have the support we are fortunate to have in our communities.”

As I slipped away in the unobtrusive way reporters should, I peeked into a few classrooms where the group of officers, having separated into one’s or two’s to visit kids in each and every one, were getting appreciated 10 ways from Sunday by little ones yet untarnished by a seriously flawed — but never without hope — world.

What happened at Coeburn Primary on Wednesday hardly rates as national news. More is the pity for that. Our nation could use a heap of what the kids and staff at CPS, and the officers who visited there, would freely share to all who care, for sure.

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