Bearer of tragedy

Published 10:42 pm Thursday, January 26, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Cassopolis Vigilant
Dowagiac Police Chief Tom Atkinson remembers too well how it used to be before Cass County created a volunteer corps of four “road chaplains” to notify next of kin.
Atkinson, chief since 1997, was still a teen-ager when he started in law enforcement in 1972 at the Sheriff's Office - an era when officers were expected to wear a tough mask to deliver devastating news so as to deny their humanity.
Responding to a “bad two-car accident,” Atkinson realized one driver had been killed, but he threw himself into “doing all the things they taught us in recruit school - measurements, photographs.”
A sergeant approached and gave Atkinson his next assignment: notify the young man's family of his death.
Complicating consoling her was the presence of two younger children in the house, the chief said. Almost simultaneously, before he could decide what to do besides stand there helplessly, his radio summoned him back to the sheriff's office.
Fast forward to a year later and he was dispatched to another fatal accident - and it was another member of the same family.
By day she's Sheriff Joe Underwood's administrative aide.
At other times around the clock she leads10 volunteer victim advocates.
For example, “It's impossible for a deputy and a chaplain to handle a spouse and four children. You can't do your job” without their backup.
Bruneau, pastor of Penn Friends Community Church in central Cass County, lives in Cassopolis and came here about eight years ago from Richmond, Ind.
He agreed with Atkinson's assessment, but acknowledged it never gets much easier to be the bearer of bad news.