I first saw him parked there on his motorcycle at the corner on Seventh Street and Verdugo Avenue. He was facing north. I was going south. I guess I didn’t think the stop sign at Verdugo applied to me, so I ran it. The police officer pointed his gloved finger at me and gestured to where he wanted me to stop.
Then he wrote the ticket. My first ticket.
Driver: Donald Ray
Vehicle make: Murray Bicycle.
Place of employment: Joaquin Miller School.
Occupation: “Grammer School” (That’s right, he misspelled grammar, but I must confess that I wasn’t the one who caught the gaffe).
Anyway, the punishment was mandatory attendance in the basement of the Burbank police building on a Saturday morning. It was traffic school for kids. And that same motorcycle cop was in charge. Officer Joe Wilson.
Truth be told, all of us kids there were frightened when he first stood up in his motorcycle boots and stared us down.
I’ll say this: we paid attention to what he had to say. And what he taught was the traffic code — the rules of the road. It was Wilson who made it clear to us that we had to obey all of the same laws that drivers of automobiles on city streets had to obey. I mean, he made it perfectly clear, or else.
OK, so I was a slow learner. I think I learned them one violation at a time.
It seems that whenever I would find it more convenient to ride on the sidewalk or to give my buddy a ride on the back of my bike, Wilson was watching me.
And he’d ticket me again. Another Saturday. Another lecture. It happened several times over the next couple of years.
I believe Officer Wilson singlehandedly taught an entire generation of young boys (and a few girls) how to drive safely — for life. It was a time when the Burbank Police Department was willing to invest in a full-time traffic officer to teach young people the rules of the road — and cite them when they broke those rules.
I wish they would do that today. I believe it would save lives.
There’s no way to measure how many lives Wilson saved over the last 50 years. I still think of him as a hero. And I have to believe that his lessons have kept me alive for five decades.
You see, when I watch impatient people drive through stop signs in their cars, or ride their bikes on the sidewalk or speed through intersections, I think about Wilson.
And I think about the drunk driver who, on June 17, 1961, ran a red light and plowed into the police motorcycle that Wilson was driving.
I cried the next morning when I saw it in the Burbank Review.
For many years, his lone photograph was on display in the lobby of the Burbank Police Department. The last time I looked, it was still on display, but there were photos of at least two other Burbank police officers who died in the line of duty.
A few years ago, I asked for the department’s help in tracking down the wife and children of Wilson so that I could thank them for what their husband and father did for me. But I was turned down. Privacy restrictions.
Then I went through the old news clippings at the Burbank Leader (formerly the Burbank Review) and was able to get the details I needed. I pulled Wilson’s death certificate at the Los Angeles County recorder’s office to learn more details — details that might help me find his children.
I filed a records request with the Burbank city attorney’s office. They were nonresponsive. I’m usually pretty good at finding people, but I wasn’t that lucky this time around.
Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
Wilson died a day or two before Father’s Day.
This past Father’s Day, I honored Officer Joseph R. Wilson, 50 years later.
I believe that he cared about me the way a father would. And he cared about scores of other young Burbank kids the same way.
If somehow this message reaches his children — they’d be in their 50s now —please know that your father has surely saved countless lives, including mine.
DON RAY is a Burbank resident.