By Terri Flagg
PILOT MOUNTAIN — Tim East was 7 years old on Feb. 3, 1969, when his grandfather, Pilot Mountain Police Officer Ralph East, was killed in the line of duty.
“I do have memories,” Tim East said of his grandfather. “I remember sitting on his lap and watching him drink coffee out of saucer.”
But many memories come from after the night Officers Ralph East and Glenn Branscome were shot and killed on Old U.S. 52 during a traffic stop of a vehicle driven by suspects in two armed robberies.
“I remember the family grieving,” Tim East said. “It was not a good time.”
East, of Mount Airy, shared his recollections during a memorial walk for the the fallen officers Saturday.
About 40 folks gathered in the Tlaquepaque Mexican Grill parking lot near the green sign announcing the start of the Branscome-East Highway in Pilot Mountain.
After a brief ceremony that included a prayer and remarks by surviving family members as well as Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson, the group walked the 1.5 mile stretch over which the officers had followed the suspect vehicle to the site near East Surry High School where they were killed.
A Brim’s Grove Baptist Church bus followed the crew for those those who needed a lift to participate.
Pilot Mountain resident Chet Jessup organized the first walk in 2007.
It has been held annually on the Saturday on or before Feb. 3 ever since.
“One thing about it, if we’re going to walk, it’s going to be cold,” Jessup said, and the 2017 event was no exception.
The walk leader said he was about seven or eight years old when the officers were killed, and the tragedy made a lasting impression.
“I told my mom then when I grow up I want to be a police officer,” he said, noting that he is now retired from a nearly 40-year career in law enforcement.
In his retirement Jessup has made it his mission to ensure all Surry County officers killed in the line of duty have been individually memorialized in some way such as highway or bridge designations.
He is additionally responsible for the monument placed on the Historic Courthouse lawn in Dobson honoring all six fallen officers.
The Branscome-East Highway designation was Jessup’s first project.
“He walked into our office and he had a vision,” Atkinson recalled. “Nothing had ever been done for any of the fallen officers.”
The N.C. Department of Transportation initially shot down Jessup’s request for the designation.
“He met a lot of resistance,” Atkinson said. “He absolutely refused to take no for an answer.”
The sheriff said the walk and all of Jessup’s efforts are appreciated by the law enforcement community as a whole.
“I think it’s important we recognize all of our heroes,” he said. “That’s why we’re here. People tend to forget; the trauma goes away for the public. It doesn’t go away for the children who are here today, or the grandchildren who never got to meet their grandfather. It could happen to anybody who wears a badge, anytime a law enforcement officer goes out the door.”
The memorial is also appreciated by the officers’ descendants.
“It’s just something that’s always been a part of our lives,” one of East’s grandchildren, Gina Southern, said about the tragedy. “It’s always in the back of our minds.”
Southern, of Pilot Mountain, said the walk brings something positive to something horrible.
“It’s nice when people get up early and make the effort,” she said. “It’s always freezing and it’s always early. It’s nice to know all these people still care.”
Tim East said he enjoys talking to people at the walk who knew his grandfather.
“It keeps the memory alive,” he said.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.