She was about 13 or 14 when we met her. She was the daughter of a fine couple my wife and I had the privilege of getting to know when I was working at the first job I ever held. In time, our two families, theirs a little larger than ours with two sons and two daughters, became friends outside of work.
Cindy and I had two sons that were several years younger than their oldest daughter, which worked out well when we needed a babysitter. The boys thought the world of her, and we’re pretty sure she felt the same way about them.
As the years went by we didn’t see our friends as often as before, so we were caught by surprise when a wedding invitation showed up in our mailbox: their oldest daughter—the little girl who used to babysit our boys—was getting married. We opened the envelope and were taken aback by the name of the groom: Richard Jewell. As the memory of the 1996 Olympics was still fresh in our minds—after all, they took place right up the road in Atlanta—we wondered what it would be like to be married to someone with the same name as the man that had initially been suspected and later exonerated of planting a bomb in a backpack in Centennial Park.
Flashback to 1996: While he was working as a security guard, Richard Jewell discovered a backpack filled with three pipe bombs in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the Summer Olympics. He alerted police to his discovery and helped evacuate the area before the bomb exploded, saving many from serious injury. Or worse. The media initially claimed him to be a hero, but it wasn’t long before he was considered a suspect. Eventually he was cleared and Eric Rudolph was found to be the bomber. Although completely exonerated, the incident took a great toll on Jewell’s personal and professional lives.
The church was packed on the day of the wedding. Cindy and I took our seats, eager to see the young woman the boys’ former babysitter had become and perhaps even more eager to see the man she chose to spend the rest of her life with, Richard Jewell. As it turned out, her future husband was going to be that Richard Jewell.
After the ceremony—it was absolutely beautiful, if you’re wondering—we had the opportunity to congratulate the newlyweds and spend some time getting to know the bridegroom. It didn’t take long to realize that Richard Jewell was one of the finest young men you’d ever hope to meet…the kind of man you’d want your daughter to meet…the kind of son any mother would be proud to call her own. Cindy and I wished them a happy life, and as they walked away there was one thought I couldn’t get out of my mind:
Who could possibly have ever suspected this fine young man of such a heinous crime? All you had to do was spend 10 minutes with him to realize there was no way he could have…WOULD have done such a terrible deed.
The only thing Richard Jewell was guilty of was doing everything in his power to make sure everyone was safe. Thinking about what the media and the powers-that-be put that young man through in the days, weeks, and months after the Olympics still hurts my heart to this day.
Sadly, the next time I saw Richard Jewell was at his funeral. It wasn’t that long after his wedding; he left this world much too soon due to heart failure from complications of diabetes. His life, one devoted to serving and protecting others, was cut short after only 44 years. The church where his service was held was more than twice as large as the one in which he was married, but it was every bit as full. To his credit, the pastor did not mention the incident at Centennial Park; instead he focused on the life Richard Jewell had led: the story of a loving son, devoted husband, faithful friend, and public servant.
After the service I spoke with his widow and her family. As you might expect, they were devastated. It was also crystal clear how proud they were to have Richard Jewell as a member of their family: a husband to one, a son-in-law to two and a brother-in-law to three.
Up until the time his illness prevented him from doing so, every year on the anniversary of the tragic event that put his name in the public eye, Richard Jewell privately placed a rose in Centennial Park at the spot where spectator Alice Hawthorne died in 1996 when the bomb exploded. While the pastor failed to use the term in his eulogy, it really wasn’t necessary because everyone in the church that day knew Richard Jewell for the man he was.
An American hero.