Those driving on the interchange ramps connecting Interstate 70 and Route 136 in South Strabane Township may want to take a moment to slow down and remember a local hero who gave his life while protecting the community.
The Officer John David Dryer Memorial Interchange was dedicated Wednesday during a ceremony at the J. Barry Stout Park and Ride lot, which marked the one-year anniversary of the East Washington Borough police officer’s tragic death.
Dryer, 46, of Claysville, died in the early morning hours of Dec. 19, 2011, after being shot during a traffic stop on I-70 near the interchange late the night before. The gunman, a Webster man, was later shot and killed by police outside his home.
“Evil is something that’s going to exist in our community, but as we come together for events like this – with the strength of the Dryer family – we can overcome any type of evil,” said state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane Township, who sponsored the bill to name the interchange in honor of Dryer.
Neuman also praised East Washington police Officer Robert Caldwell, who was shot through the hand during the traffic stop that claimed the life of his best man and friend since first grade, as well as tow truck driver Leroy Frank Marker, who bravely confronted the shooter in an attempt to stop the man from fleeing.
State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, added that the memorial signs are a symbol to remind people that while evil exists, so do heroes.
Family, friends, law enforcement officers and lawmakers all gathered to remember a man who served the community in many ways – as a police officer, veterinarian, firefighter, Game Commission officer and farmer.
“We had no clue how many people really genuinely loved and cared about David,” said Beth Dryer Nijenhuis, Dryer’s younger sister. Last December, more than 1,000 people filled Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Washington during a two-hour funeral service. Prior to the service, hundreds of brothers in blue endured the cold until the flag-draped coffin arrived by horse-drawn caisson.
“I don’t think my family could have gotten through this without the community and the support of the police and even strangers sending us stuff – it’s been amazing,” she said.
Neijenhuis’ children, 11-year-old Gerrit and 9-year-old Skylar, both spoke at the ceremony, delivering a message from the family and a prayer, respectively.
“Despite how difficult this year has been for our family, the love and support from this community has inspired us. We have seen that although there is evil in this world, there is still so much good,” said Gerrit Nijenhuis.
Dryer’s father, John, who also addressed those in attendance, said his son loved the police force so much that he had planned to retire early as a vet to become a full-time policeman, an idea he wasn’t thrilled about but supported so long as he continued to care for his dogs.
“We love David, we miss him everyday, but it’s been with the help and strength of you people that we’ve been able to get through this,” the elder Dryer said.
Elaine Smith, Dryer’s aunt, said the hardest part has been his absence at family gatherings.
“I was never in his presence that I didn’t get a hug and an ‘I love you,’ and for that I really miss him,” she said.
Dryer’s younger brother, Dean, said the support from the community and the police has been outstanding. He said the Western Pennsylvania Police Benevolent Foundation has been there anytime the family needed them.
In April, the foundation, in conjunction with DPS Penn, K9s for Kids and the Autism Center of Pittsburgh, made arrangements for Dryer’s autistic son, Ben, to get a service dog.
The foundation partnered with local police to raise money by selling T-shirts bearing a policeman’s badge with a black ribbon covering the officer’s name on the front to pay tribute to Dryer. Police also collected donations for the Dryer family during a Pittsburgh Penguins game last season.
Dean Dryer said he recently saw a person wearing one of the shirts at Walmart and wanted to thank the individual, but was unable to do so.
“I lost a brother, but I’ve gained hundreds of family members in the process,” he said.