The level of formality and reverence that was the hallmark of slain Kenai Police Officer John Watson's funeral Wednesday awed many area residents who had never witnessed such a ceremonial show of respect.
It was a bittersweet sight: a fitting honor to the 18-year Kenai police veteran and beloved member of the community, yet also a sad reminder of the brutal way in which he was shot dead in the line of duty.
Four-hundred-plus public safety officers drove and flew from around the state and beyond to attend the funeral at Kenai Central High School.
Most had never met Watson, had never seen his easy smile or heard him talk about his love for his family or his hobby of riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
But they didn't need to know him. All they needed to know was he was a fallen colleague, so he deserved their respect.
"Everyone in law enforcement feels that pain, regardless of whether they knew him or not. He was a part of the law enforcement brotherhood," said Officer Scott Roberts with the Anchorage Police Department.
Roberts joined the solemn sea of officers in black, blue, tan and green uniforms that crowded into the Eagles Aerie No. 35255 next to Peninsula Memorial Chapel on Wednesday morning to get instructions for the processional to Kenai Central High School. The crowd waited quietly as Kenai Police Chief Chuck Kopp thanked them for their presence.
"I'm overwhelmed by the support by the Anchorage Police Department (and others), simply overwhelmed. I love you guys," Kopp said.
The procession was led by Watson's patrol car, driven by a fellow Kenai officer, another patrol car carrying Chief Kopp and Kenai Lt. Kim Wannamaker, a hearse with Watson's American flag-draped coffin, and vehicles carrying Watson's family. Alaska State Troopers from Soldotna's E Detachment and Kenai Fire Department officers were next in line, since they responded to the call Christmas night when Watson was killed.
Other law enforcement vehicles from across the peninsula and the state filled out the procession. As the officers arrived at the high school, they parked their vehicles and stood at attention behind them in the sub-zero morning air until Watson's body had been taken inside.
The ceremony gave some comfort to Watson's grieving family, said Tom Watson of Michigan, John's brother.
"It's the first time I've seen that -- the whole camaraderie of the brotherhood of the service," he said. "You see movies like that, how they all gather together and help the family, and it's helped us. Those guys definitely are all broken up, you can tell they miss John."
During the funeral, the officers listened to speakers tell what a fine officer and man John Watson was. The officers filled a good portion of the lower level of the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at KCHS, but their numbers were more than doubled by the community members who filled the rest of the auditorium and spilled into the KCHS gym, where a closed-circuit system was set up.
Almost all already knew Watson, and had stories of their own to remember him by.
Jerry R. Carlson remembers Watson from the many times he stopped by Carlson's pawn shop in Kenai, sometimes on official business, but more often just to chat.
"Every time he drove by he was always waving and smiling really big," Carlson said. "He was just a neat guy."
Carlson also knew Watson through their mutual interest in Harleys.
"He had the best license plate on a Harley in Alaska -- 'Frozn,'" Carlson said.
That license plate does not at all describe Watson's personality, however. Many people listed his warm, friendly nature and teddy bear-like qualities as his most notable traits.
Craig Breshears of Anchorage said he was always impressed with Watson's positive attitude. Breshears is the director of the Alaska chapter of Harley Owner's Group, and Watson often sought his advice when he became the director of the newly formed peninsula HOG chapter. It was a challenge for Watson at first trying to round up enough volunteer support to make the group a go.
"Instead of complaining to me, he asked for solutions," Breshears said. "... What strikes me most about John is I never, in three years of knowing him, heard him complain."
Jim Graige of North Kenai knew Watson for years and went on many summer rides with him.
"He really loved people," Graige said. "He didn't usually sit on the sidelines, he was involved, whether it was police work, civic things, the Elks chapter, teaching kids about drugs. ... He was just so interested in people and really enjoyed being around people."
His love extended to more than just people, said Sandy Taylor, who lives near Kasilof. She first met Watson in about 1996 when he responded to a call of a moose hit by a vehicle near the bowling alley in Kenai. Taylor saw the animal get hit and after going to its aid saw that it was a pregnant cow. Watson had to shoot the animal, but Taylor asked him to help her do a C-section to try and save the calf. He gave her a pocket knife to make the incision, held the animal's legs and gave her a blanket to rub the placenta off the calf. The calf didn't make it, but Taylor never forgot Watson's willingness to help.
"He tried, that's the kind of guy he was," Taylor said. "They talk about (his love for) people, but he also loved animals. I'll never forget him. Even though he had other things to do, he stayed there and helped."
Hearing stories like these has been a comfort to his grieving family, Tom Watson said.
"The services have been just wonderful," he said. "They've shared just wonderful memories of John. Everybody comes up and wants to share a special memory of John and how wonderful he's made their lives."
Out-of-town family members, including Watson's mother, two brothers and sister, returned to their homes Thursday and took memories of the funeral and stories from Watson's friends with them.
"I think we're coming to grips with it," Tom Watson said. "It's been rough. We're trying to work through it."
Watson's colleagues at the Kenai Police Department and his many friends in the community are doing the same.
"He'll be missed, no doubt about it," Graige said. "That's a spot in our community that will never be filled. He was pretty much a one-of-a-kind guy."
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