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AJ Swope had a boundless, infectious energy. In whatever role he was playing—television news anchor, chief spokesman for the region’s wind energy industry or gifted musician—he inspired others to find the best in themselves and put it to good work.

Ten years have now passed since his life was cut short by a suicidal wrong-way driver on U.S. 287 north of Amarillo. And while the emotional and psychological blow was devastating to his family and friends, the energy that surrounded AJ Swope during his short life is still in play as those who loved him best build upon his legacy. 

Within a year of AJ Swope’s passing, his wife, Wendi, came together with several of AJ’s friends in both the music and business communities to discuss a meaningful way to preserve her husband’s memory while benefiting the community—a living monument perpetuating his love of music and the culture and history of the region.

“When you suffer a catastrophic loss in life, you find yourself with a choice to make,” Wendi says. “Let the hurt and darkness settle into your heart and permanently suffocate your soul, or claw your way out of that tragic pit of despair by finding purpose. Our purpose was continuing AJ’s mission of connecting our community through the power of music.”

The efforts gained steam through the formation of Friends of AJ Swope and a plan to build an outdoor performance venue downtown, ringed by an outdoor Texas Panhandle Hall of Fame. By 2018, the group had commissioned an architectural rendering that also included a special wall along the Hall of Fame for the Texas Panhandle First Responders Memorial, an unbuilt project previously envisioned by another group of citizens. 

City leadership encouraged the effort, offering to provide land near the Hodgetown baseball stadium if fundraising efforts were successful. After a promising start in 2019, the efforts ran into the brick wall of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and stalled.

“When COVID struck, it was not only a hit to our progress, it was also a hit to our confidence,” Wendi says. “As priorities across the globe changed, our project faced mounting difficulties and was ultimately put on hold. Although we couldn’t have known it at the time, those frustrating challenges would later turn into amazing opportunities that would allow us to enhance the project beyond what we had ever imagined.”

A gradual return to normalcy in 2021 was the first step toward getting the project off high-center. But by that time, a city bond issue to expand the Amarillo Civic Center had been rejected by voters. The uncertainty around the city’s future facility plans along Buchanan Street led Friends of AJ Swope to consider other locations for the plaza project. Concurrently, the Crouch Foundation—which was formed to operate Arts in the Sunset/Amarillo Art Institute after founder Ann Crouch’s 2017 passing—had finalized plans to reimagine their Sunset Center space along Plains Boulevard. The radical makeover of the old shopping mall included plans for an outdoor performance venue. Friends of AJ Swope immediately saw in this plan a way to accomplish the initial goal of building a performance space to memorialize AJ Swope and help the Crouch Foundation fulfill its desire to expand its reach into the performing arts.  

“The opportunity to partner with Friends of AJ Swope was a serendipitous one,” says Rachel Flores, executive director of the Amarillo Art Institute. “The decision had already been made to build an outdoor performance space at Arts in the Sunset, but we knew it would be important to start connecting further within the music world. Naming the space after AJ—someone who brought people together through music and cared so much for this community—brings a special weight and value to the space. It also opened the doors to meeting local musicians, and making the connections we had been looking for.”

The Crouch Foundation and Friends of AJ Swope signed a partnership agreement in the summer of 2022 as work got underway on the renovations at Sunset. The Crouch Foundation greatly reduced the mall’s footprint by demolishing a line of empty shops that flanked the east side of the north mall. Playa Design Group’s plans for the rest of the northern extension called for stripping it down to its steel skeleton to create an open-air event space where the AJ Swope Performance Plaza is now being developed. 

The performance space at Arts in the Sunset will be accessed from a covered concourse that was formerly the northern extension of the mall, and can be used in a variety of ways. Dressing rooms and a green room are planned backstage, providing amenities for multiple types of performances. A built-in bar will further enhance the space as a special events venue. Friends of AJ Swope is working with Arts in the Sunset to open the new space with a music festival in spring of 2023.

With the performance venue project nearing completion in a different setting than originally proposed, Friends of AJ Swope decided to develop the Hall of Fame and First Responders Memorial as separate projects in different locations. The group gave top priority to the First Responders Memorial, and last year secured a lease on a city-owned pocket park on South Polk Street at 11th Avenue next to the historic Bivins Home as the desired location. Turner LandArchitecture and Sims + Architects submitted a redesign of the existing greenspace that will transform it into a contemplative setting for the memorial. The prominent feature will be a water cascade behind terraced walls listing the names of more than 90 Texas Panhandle law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who have died in the line of duty—dating as far back as 1882. Fundraising efforts are underway with plans to complete the memorial by 2024.

Friends of AJ Swope had already established partnerships with several area first responder groups before the pandemic and secured the blessing of those involved before announcing the revised plan last summer. One of the earliest supporters is Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas, who has been close to AJ Swope’s family for many years.

“I have always said that the Panhandle is nothing like what you see anywhere else in the country,” Thomas says. “Our citizens love and respect us as first responders, and now we will have a place for families to go with their children to sit and explain to them what this place is about. What a blessing this will be for the families but also
the citizens to come and see and respect all those who have given their lives.” 

The connection between AJ Swope and the First Responders Memorial is deeply meaningful to Thomas, who was on duty the day Swope died. He had been called to the scene of the wreck, unaware of who was involved. He insisted that he notify the family himself once it was known that Swope was the victim, and recalls that day as the hardest day in his law enforcement career.

“Wendi and I go back at least 20 years,” Thomas says. “When she married AJ, he was the love of her life. What a great person and fabulous musician. Let me tell you, it was the absolute toughest call I ever responded to in my 35 years.”

The First Responders Memorial will need an estimated $1.2 million to finish. Donations are being accepted through the Friends of AJ Swope fund at the Amarillo Area Foundation, either through the Foundation’s website, amarilloareafoundation.org or through friendsofajswope.org. The Friends of AJ Swope website also features architectural renderings and flythrough videos of both the First Responders Memorial and AJ Swope Performance Plaza. The group has since applied for its own nonprofit status to enable it to improve and maintain both projects, and eventually develop the Texas Panhandle Hall of Fame, which exists virtually on the group’s website. 

Author

  • Wes Reeves

    Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.

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