Monthly Archives: May 2018

Remembering JSO Officer Lance Whitaker: Love+Laughter=Legacy

He had placed a black and white American flag across the windshield of his patrol car.  It had a single stripe of blue. The blue and red lights flashed silently from the top bar as he watched the procession.  His friend, also a police officer, told me. This officer had had lunch with Lance two hours before the crash. The one that took his life on the way to try to save someone else.  Their eyes were among those of the many first responders and families who lined the route the hearse would travel to watch Lance pass from the morgue to the funeral home.  The first path along the way to saying goodbye to him forever.

He is in his blue uniform and along with his wife and four young kids they are putting flowers around the three new statues at the Jacksonville Police Memorial. The tall bronze officers in uniform were unveiled less than two weeks ago during our local ceremony to honor the 61 officers who died in the line of duty.  Lance will be number 62.  The memorial wall etched with their names and faces has only been here for one year… exactly.  As a member of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Lance is his family too.  A loss echoed throughout the community of this large small town we all call home.  Flags around town fly half-mast for a hero who has died.

They came in somberly, identically, with their heads held high. About a dozen of them.  Each in their blue police uniforms, their hats tucked neatly under their left arms just below the black bands across their shiny badges. They walked in a single file line silently yet they were the loudest movement in the church.  They had come to show their respects to their brother in blue.  After pausing to say goodbye, one by one in front of the open casket, they greeted each member of his family.  Gestures of kindness and love for those who would forevermore be part of their blue family.  A whispered conversation with Lance’s mom and sister.  A pat on the shoulder for his 14-year-old son.  A hug for his fiancee.  Lots of smiles and handshakes. Then his Zone 6 squad left the room as quietly as they arrived. Without Lance, who remains under the careful watch of a rotating shift of two Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Honor Guards,  who will remain at his side till he is laid to rest.

They came from out of town. Miami-Dade. With wide trooper style hats and green grey uniforms. The six of them paused in front of the casket and ever so slowly together raised their white-gloved right hands in unison and held it.  Then just as solemnly lowered their salute and turned down the aisle to quietly exit the church. Lance was their family too.

He came with his wife and three children. The little group greeted Lance’s family then stood in front of the casket and  knelt down. He leaned his hand and head in toward the casket. They all stayed like that for a few minutes then stood up and walked over to talk to us.  A forehead to forehead hug with another officer.  Then more hugs.  Lance had been on his squad under his supervision for five years and he was his family too.

We came because each of us has been touched by line-of-duty deaths before. The blue family is our family too.  Some were in Washington DC when they heard the sad news.  On the way to a call for help, driving in the rainstorm on the highway , Lance had crashed into the trees and died in the early morning on National Police Memorial Day. They found out hours before attending that service on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

On the morning of his funeral the church was filled beyond capacity.  Close to 1000 family members, friends, coworkers and Jacksonville citizen’s, the community that Lance died protecting, came to show they were his family too.

“The highest honor that we can give Lance is to be as strong, to be as courageous and to be as compassionate as Lance was every day that he put on his uniform,” said Sheriff Mike Williams, speaking at the service. Three other officers had been seriously injured since he was elected, but Lance was the only one to die in the line of duty.

The highest honor our sheriff and the city of Jacksonville wanted to give Lance and his family was evident at the one-of-a-kind graveside service.  First the JSO Honor Guard carried the flag-draped coffin to his final resting place while bagpipes played “Coming Home.”  The 21 gun salute followed, then the single trumpet playing of “Taps,” bagpipes played “Amazing Grace,” and then the Missing Man Formation  (4 helicopters flyover and one leaves the formation to fly over the burial to signify the loss of an officer).

Next they folded the flag ever so slowly in a triangle and Sheriff Mike Williams and the Honor Guard presented two folded flags: one to Lance’s mother and the other to his son along with the shell casings from the 21 gun salute. Finally over a loud speaker from an Honor Guard patrol car-the Last Radio Call for End of Watch:

” Quebec 268. Quebec 268. Quebec 268.  Attention All Units.  Attention All Units.  As of May 23rd, 2018 at 14:18 hours Officer L.C. Whitaker ID #7656 is 10-82 for the final time. Thank you Lance for a job well done.  Rest in Peace.  14:18 hours KJH 224.”

In addition to these honors they added the presence of The United States Honor Flag and the riderless horse with boots, which was led by a single officer past the gravesite.

They came from all over Florida and lined up in rows at the cemetery.  Officers in a variety of different uniforms all united by the risks they take protecting the communities they love. The Governor, The Mayor and the Sheriff were among them.

You were there too. The citizens of Jacksonville. Lining the streets with well wishes, American flags, with your children. And online with Facebook and Twitter watching live feeds and photographs. All saying goodbye to one of my beloved police officers.

“Most people don’t like the police,” said the six-year-old girl many years ago, “but your pictures show them loving each other.”

This little girl was one of the children I had the honor of helping raise as her nanny.  She now has a daughter of her own.

One Jacksonville officer said to me many years ago and these words have always resonated with me:  We are your police officers. This has been my home for almost a quarter century and I cherish these officers like my own family.

For the last approximately 25 years I have documented my heroes lives and specifically focused on the loss of my heroes in a way that I hoped would help you the public understand them and maybe stop people from killing them.  By photographing the love they have for one another seen at line-of-duty funerals.  It was the way I tried to show how much I love my police officers in the hopes that you would love them too.  Because sometimes they need saving too. I hope that my little part here will work in symphony with all the other different pieces of documentation from the week our community said goodbye to Lance.  

“Love each other and treat each other  with respect…because you never know when you’re not going to have the opportunity,”  said retired JSO Master Sergeant Matt Clements in his eulogy at Lance’s memorial service, paraphrasing an online posting from Chief Michelle Cook, of the Atlantic Beach Police Department.

Lance’s funeral is the last one I will photograph.  I am looking for another way to honor my police officers.  I would like to find the right partner to create an educational museum and for-profit boutique store. My vision is for it to become a permanent place where the public can see the photographs I have taken of the people I love while supporting their local law enforcement families.  They can buy items in the store that will in part help provide funds for police (and fire) families who have died in the line of duty.

Because when it all comes down to it everything we do should be about love and supporting those who matter.

On this Memorial Day evening,  police officers , firefighters and friends gathered at a local pub to hold a Blue Line Wake for Lance.  The Jacksonville Fire Department Pipe and Drum bagpipes played “Amazing Grace,” inside the bar on stage loud enough that maybe Lance can here it in Heaven.  Each member of the packed full crowd raised their glass and held it for the whole song in a silent toast remembrance to honor their one-of-a-kind hero who was a cherished member of their family.

Steve Zona, 2nd President, Fraternal Order of Police 5-30, Jacksonville, Florida-one of the leaders of Our Blue Family- said it best the morning before attending the wake of his friend, Lance, when he described how to honor a debt of The Ultimate Sacrifice that we can never repay.

“Thank you is not enough,” he said on Twitter. “Make a difference in your life because they made a difference in ours.”

Freedom has never been Free.

Live.  Like.  Lance.

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The Kiss Tweeted Around the World: Cinderella Kiss from Tristan Rogers aka Robert Scorpio of General Hospital

I’ve always been the one behind the camera. On the Edge. Arrogant. Confident. With a Devil May Care Bad Attitude. National Award-Winning Photojournalist.  #2 in my news sequence Graduating Class at Kent State University. Top Photojournalist in the school… The resume sounds good and I have all the stories and adventures to boot but there was always an enormous cost to my achievements.

I wasn’t there for my brother, Robert, to save him from suicide.  I was so focused on keeping my grades up and on my own survival that I missed the desperation in his voice that night.  When others were out partying I was studying.  Hoping for that golden future promised. I interned at top newspapers and got a full-time job right away.  I put out 5 resumes and got 5 interviews while others put out hundreds.  I picked a gritty local paper to work for and felt I could take on anyone. I had to work harder and be better so that the awards I won would cover the isolation I felt as the only women on the photo staff.  I had to be tough enough to see past the hazing and survive in the ultra competitive take no prisoners abusive news environment where you were only as good as your last picture.

But this lifestyle took a toll. I saw too many horrific things.  Some days were so bad I would cry in my car all the way home. In 1995 on the way to cover a plane crash for a local newspaper I was a victim injured in a three car hit and run crash involving a Drunk Driver. It took me more than a year to get off disability, another three years to get off most of the meds and another ten years to get out of debt. More crashes and more injuries over the years took a toll but I always bounced back. It got to a point where it just wasn’t worth it any more.  I decided to walk away.  I did freelance magazine work for awhile but the contracts were only worth the lawyers I could pay to enforce them. My clients would take a one time use payment and make it a forever we own this use.  I tried being a nanny and teaching preschool, VPK, Kindergarten.  Rewarding and loved the kid’s but car crash injuries always took their toll.

In 2014 a glass van whipped out into the path of my car. It was like a bomb went off. I remember lying in the middle of the street with a doctor and nurse working on me and firefighters cutting off my clothes and I just knew no matter what happened I was not going to let this destroy my life. I was left with a choice: I was told that I would need five more surgeries to help repair the damage to my body. This was after already having an aircast on my foot  for months, enduring countless painful therapies along with numerous shots and invasive procedures.

Five more years of pain and recovering from surgeries that no one could guarantee would fix me.  This was more than I was willing to do. Instead I chose to have a stem cell procedure in hopes that that cutting edge technology can help.  The effectiveness still remains to be seen.  I still deal on a daily basis with varying levels of chronic pain. Now I own a vintage toy store.  The kid’s call it T’s Toy Heaven. It’s lots of fun but as always the car crash injuries are sometimes unsurmountable.

Chronic pain and the financial cost of dealing with it does something to me that I don’t like.  It takes away the laughter side of me.  This past year I made a decision.  I would make the most of moments that matter.  My New Years resolution was Fun and Hope.  That change of attitude which I still struggle to keep positive has already made so much difference.  I started doing things I never would have done before.  Supporting causes of those who like me have also had cancer scares.   I found a group that combines fundraising with the most amazing celebrity events I have ever attended.  Sandyovarian.org

This leads me back to the part about getting kissed by Tristan Rogers a.k.a.  Robert Scorpio, the fictional former Police Commissioner of Port Charles, a character on the TV show, General Hospital.  My first cop crush.  Role Model.  Back then when I was a kid rushing home from school and then work to watch the show, I didn’t even realize it. That this larger than life character chock full of charm, adventure, romance and integrity would have such a drastic lifelong influence on me.

How Robert Scorpio treated people on screen set an example for me that didn’t take root right away as I dealt with my own demons and the anger surrounding my brother of the same first name’s death.  The tenderness of his affection with onscreen daughter, Robin, and wife, Holly, as well as the stand up way he took care of his friends and then later his ex, Anna, helped to make him such a beloved character that he almost seemed real.  He also upheld the law in a way that made sense.  The dramatic way in which he and his tv cop wife were honored as killed in the line of duty WSB agents I didn’t see until many years later.  I saw it years after I had begun my own journey to honor those real police officers who did make that ultimate sacrifice.

Those who lived their real life the way Robert Scorpio did on TV.  My journey to document those family tragedies took many years and encompassed so much emotion.  But everything came full circle when I had the unique opportunity to meet Tristan Rogers in person at the fundraiser last week. Thirty-four years after I first remembered him on my TV screen.

I got to observe this iconic man’s kindness to a fan in a wheelchair when he called her grandmother on the phone personally. I saw him patiently sign autograph after autograph for hours. His demeanor with fans.  His humor when he laughingly told the audience how he was able to cry on cue by thinking about the salary he made performing.  What truly revealed the kind and compassionate man that he is was the lengthy discussion we had as he fortuitously for me was seated next to me at dinner.  After asking everybody at the table their names and a little bit about what they did we got to interact just like normal people would.  Well as normal as you can be speaking to an icon of your childhood.

“Oh My God,” I said. “Do you have any idea what this feels like sitting next to my childhood hero?”

Tristan just smiled and took it in stride just as he probably has done his entire career.

We talked about everything from Barbies to his early start in acting. He likes to say he was not that good in the beginning but Gloria Monty must have seen then what we all know now. That this character she created was not that far off from the man who walked in to play him.

But I think the thing  that touched me the most this day was what he said in response to when I told him how nice that was-the phone call he made to that fan.

I didn’t write it down so I will just paraphrase as much as I can. He looked me in the eyes inches from my face and said this… When you have the opportunity to do something that really makes a difference in someone’s life you should do it. I just felt that it was the right thing to do.

We continued talking about what had happened to me with my injuries and someone asked me if I ever got married. I said no I was engaged once but he left because he couldn’t deal with my medical problems. Tristan’s face looked surprised and sad. He lightened things up by saying something like you know what you need is a man to take you away for a great weekend. We all laughed and then talked more about Barbies. Turns out he owns a collection and I offered to help him  figure out the value of it. He asked me for my business card which I gave him. I don’t know if you will call but it felt nice to be appreciated for what I do.

As we lined up to get pictures with Tristan before he left to go to the next table one girl asked if he would kiss her on the cheek for the photo which he obliged. I kind of laughed and said wow you’ll have to start kissing everybody now. I really didn’t think he heard me and I don’t know if you did or not. I certainly didn’t expect anything. I was just really happy to be there and meet you. I posed for a picture with you and I thought that would be it.

“Look at me,” Tristan said.

I turned to look up at him and he kissed me on the lips.  And held it for probably about 10 seconds so that The Kiss could be in the photograph. Robin (Cohen) told me later that this unnerved her so much that she was shaking and almost didn’t get the picture. I mean who would not want to be kissed by Robert Scorpio? And now I learned what it’s like. Magic. I felt like Cinderella at the ball getting kissed by the handsome Prince Charming. But what impressed me the most was that this kind man knew full well what it would mean to me and wanted to do exactly what he had said earlier. It just felt like the right thing to do.  Perhaps that is why to this day he is one of -if not the- Most Loved Character and real person who graces the screen on daytime television.

I felt like I could have listened to you speak for hours about the stories only you could tell.  Maybe someday I will get another opportunity to speak with you.  But most importantly maybe we should all take a life lesson from you Tristan Rogers.

Make a difference. Do what matters. Touch someone’s life in a positive way whenever you have the opportunity.  And remember that no matter how dark you may be feeling in one moment there is always the possibility of a light at the end of the rainbow.   Thanks Tristan for being that light for me.