When we leave for work each day, Gary Pitner says, most of us have the expectation that we’ll return home at the end of the day. First responders and their families face significantly more uncertainty. “These folks truly do live with the possibilities that they may not make it home,” he says.
The Texas nonprofit Friends of AJ Swope has partnered with regional first responder agencies to raise money for a First Responders Memorial, planned for the northwest corner of S. Polk Street and 11th Avenue, just south of the historic Bivins Home. Currently, the organization has raised a third of its $1.5 million fundraising goal.
While many of the Texas Panhandle’s fallen first responders have been memorialized for their sacrifices, this physical monument will be the first memorial to commemorate all of them in a single place. “It’s important for us to remember those people, to acknowledge their importance to our well-being here in the Texas Panhandle,” says Pitner, the board secretary of the Friends of AJ Swope organization. “We are still trying to identify folks [to commemorate] over the past 130 years, and are approaching 100 names.” These include law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMS personnel and emergency transport members. One of the earliest names is that of Henry McCullough, the Oldham County deputy sheriff who was killed in a shootout at Old Tascosa. Others include the names of the 19 volunteer firefighters in the Sunray and Dumas Fire Departments who perished during the tragic Shamrock Oil & Gas Corporation refinery tank explosion and fire in July 1956. Until the September 11 attacks, that tragedy killed the third most firefighters of any single fire event in the United States. “Thirty-five children lost their fathers at that one point in time. Real people with real lives here in the Panhandle,” Pitner says.
The memorial is one of multiple projects coordinated by Friends of AJ Swope. Most recently, the organization finished the AJ Swope Performance Plaza, an outdoor venue constructed in partnership with Arts in the Sunset.
Swope, a former television news reporter and anchor, musician, and business leader, passed away in 2013 at the age of 27 in a two-vehicle accident on U.S. 287. “Doing the news with KVII, he was exposed to those first responders on a daily basis,” Pitner says of AJ Swope. “All things Texas Panhandle were important to him, and it’s important to us as friends of AJ to do things that are important to this community.”
The organization hopes to raise enough money to start construction by late 2024, and is currently accepting individual and corporate donations. To learn more, visit friendsofajswope.org.