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Community pays respects

Thirty years ago, it was only a cheap Christmas ornament.

A silver ball, mirror finish, a couple inches across, like those the big stores set out every October in packs of 24, with snow globes and ribbon and stars, for just a few dollars. Lincoln County’s Theresa Autrey bought a whole pack of them back in the late 1980s, and had every one of the dozen-or-so members of the youth group at Holly Springs Baptist Church sign their names in red paint. They hung on the church’s Christmas tree that year.

She still has those spheres of memory at her home, all these years later. One of them bears the name “Kevin White.” She dug it out, found it, held it in her hands last weekend when she heard White, 35, and Zach Moak, 31, were killed in the line of duty while serving with the Brookhaven Police Department.

The cheap ornament has become priceless.

“I’m gonna put it on my tree again this year,” Autrey said Tuesday, wiping tears out of her eyes as she stood in the parking lot of Easthaven Baptist Church with White’s visitation ongoing inside. “Or, I may give it to his mother.”

Autrey was one of hundreds — maybe thousands — who came to pay their respects to White and his family Tuesday evening at Easthaven, a service so grand it required a staff of 50 or more volunteers to direct and park overflow traffic in the church’s big lots that came in from across Lincoln County, from Lawrence and Madison and Rankin counties, from Florida and Tennessee, and even a delegation of law enforcement officers from New York, 1,200 miles away.

A sinking sun threw shadows across dozens of patrol cars, black and blue and silver and white, and the red lights of the big fire engines blinked to announce the seriousness of the proceedings within. Which was just as well, for White was a serious man — a fearless man, a man of war, a combat veteran who suffered and bled and fought on, anyway; who decided a painful limp on the battlefield was better than a free trip home, a man who faced death, overseas and at home in Brookhaven, without a thought of himself, many times.

One time too many.

“Just looking at the old family photographs, he was a young man with cap pistols, little fire trucks — he was forever in pursuit of valor,” said Mike Campbell, a courthouse security officer with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department who came to honor White. “He was a real, red-blooded, American man. His dreams were tremendous, and he achieved many of them. I think the life he lived will inspire his children, and it will go on and go, like that little stone thrown in the water, and the ripples still move.”

George Ridge pastors River of Life Church in Brookhaven, where White’s grandmother, Margaret Pitre, worships. Emerging alone from Easthaven Tuesday afternoon, he called White’s death in the line of duty one of the great tragedies he’s ever seen — a man who has preached funerals, comforted the dying, for years.

But he also feels hope.

“It’s absolutely encouraging to see such a great response from the community,” Ridge said, as more and more cars pulled into the church. “It’s encouraging to see the community show respect for those who put their lives on the lines every day for us. Were it not for people like Kevin, who will give themselves for the cause, just think of the catastrophe everything would be.”

Owen Autrey — Theresa’s husband — called the big crowd at Easthaven “awesome.”

“It shows the respect we have for the men and women who protect us,” he said. “We respect all our law enforcement officers, and we’re letting them know.”