LUMBERTON — Early this week, 20 law-enforcement trainees showed their appreciation for a man remembered as giving tirelessly to the community he loved by picking up the tab for his family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
“It seemed so appropriate given the time of the year and what he has done for the community,” Mike Humphrey, a training coordinator with the Basic Law Enforcement Training program at Robeson Community College, said of Walter William “Bill” Perry.
Perry — chairman of the Lumberton’s Precinct 3 community watch; president of both the Citizens Police Academy and Police Alumni Association; part-time finger-printer at Lumberton Police Department; veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars; man in the McGruff the Crime Dog costume and part-time Santa — lost a battle with cancer on Oct. 25 at the age of 78.
“He meant everything in the world,” Devola Perry said, adding that when they buried her husband, she wanted to “jump right in there with him.
“You never know what you’ll be missing until you miss it,” she said.
On Monday, Devola Perry and her family traveled to Robeson Community College to receive a gift card loaded with enough money for a 12-person Thanksgiving at a local restaurant. It was the first of what Humphrey and fellow training coordinator Burnis Wilkins and law enforcement school Director Wayne Coats, hope to make a Thanksgiving tradition to pay forward a kindness that was shown during a hard time for all those who wear a badge.
“With the outpouring of support from the community following Jeremiah Goodson’s death, we wanted to in some small way give back, or I guess you could say, give forward,” Humphrey told the class before they gathered outside to hand the card to Devola, her son Walter Jr., “special” daughter Jennifer Pittman, daughter Wendy Donaldson and grandchildren Kaylee and Thomas.
“I don’t know what to say,” Wendy said. “It’s an honor.”
After the presentation, each cadet each gave Devola a hug.
“That was not something we had planned,” Humphrey said. “I think that just speaks volumes.
“We’re trying to train these guys to be law enforcement officers in every sense of the word, but we want to show them the humanitarian side of law enforcement as well.”
Richard Bailey, a student in Humphrey’s class, said a career as a police officer is a commitment to service for others.
“Leading by example is what law enforcement is all about,” he said. “Law enforcement is here to do their job, which includes caring for the people and citizens they serve.”
Bill Perry is remembered by his family, and the officers who knew him, as someone who thought of others before himself. Three to four weeks before he died, he was still mowing people’s lawns — a service for which he did not demand payment from those strapped for cash. A day before Perry’s cancer sent him to a hospice house, Wilkins said Perry was only worried about how his family would pay the rent, or eat a good meal without his income.
Devola said that her husband fought going to the hospice house to the last minute.
“Then when he was in there, all he wanted to do was get out,” she said.
“Yeah, he was sitting on the edge of the bed,” Wilkins said.
When Perry’s son, Walter Jr., was asked to recall the ways his father served the community, he was at a loss for words.
“He fed the police on holidays — and I mean every holiday,” he said, to make sure officers who couldn’t be able to be with their families would enjoy a holiday meal. Perry could also be found at the police department once a week to take fingerprints.
“I’m used to seeing him every Tuesday and got to know him,” said Lumberton police Capt. Johnny Barnes. “He was a real good guy.”
One of the roles for which Perry was most well known was that of the ultimate giver — Santa Claus. Perry, with a white beard he grew long for the season, played the jolly old elf at Walmart and during Lumberton Fire Department’s “Toys for Kids” drive.
“He would come out with us and deliver toys from house to house,” said Lumberton Fire Chief Paul Ivey. “The kids really seemed to enjoy that, having him come to their house personally.
“He was just a very outgoing, friendly person who was willing to help out any way he could.”
Lumberton City Council members expect to honor Perry’s memory by attaching a card with a message from Perry, and a photo of him, to each child’s gift in the Toys for Kids program, but need a business sponsor to help. The council’s donation of $2,200 in community revitalization funds for the program will be given to the fire department in Perry’s honor.
“He really touched a lot of lives and I appreciate that, because even last year and the year before we could tell his health was failing — but he climbed in and out of the fire truck even though it was painful,” City Councilman John Cantey said. “But that’s the reason why we are trying to make this Christmas all about him, in his honor … I would like this to be as big of a Christmas as possible.”