For the first time in 44 years, the Palo Alto Police Department will turn out Thursday for a memorial at the gravesite of Lester H. Cole, the first of its ranks to be killed in the line of duty.
Cole, a reserve officer, was run over and killed the night of Jan. 31, 1969, while setting up flares to guide traffic around an accident scene near the intersection of Alma Street and Churchill Avenue.
Reserve Officer Dennis Neverve has spent the past six months helping coordinate the memorial. He said members of the police department routinely travel to the gravesites of the city's other fallen officers, Gene Clifton and Theodore Brassinga, but for some reason, Cole slipped through the cracks.
"It's not like we feel guilty. It's that he's been overlooked and he never should have been overlooked," Neverve said in an interview at The Daily News. "We want to not only make amends, but every year from now on, he'll be remembered."
Neverve shares a special connection to Cole. The two worked at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale during the mid-1960s. Neverve was an assistant lead man in the paint shop and Cole kept track of parts.
"I would tell Lester, 'Yeah, the part is here. You know there's a Coke machine around the corner and if you just happened to go over there and get me a Coke, it could be ready in a couple of hours,'" Neverve said with a laugh.
"He would come back in about 10 minutes with a Coke and I would say, 'It's already in the
Cole, a reserve officer at the time, knew about Neverve's interest in police work and encouraged him to apply in Palo Alto. In July 1967, Neverve joined the department as a rookie officer.
The two men occasionally saw one another in uniform but worked in different divisions of the police department.
Neverve was patrolling downtown on foot when he learned that his friend and colleague had been struck.
"I heard the radio traffic," Neverve recalled. "They said it was major injuries. They took him to Stanford Hospital and a couple of hours later they put it out over the radio that he was deceased."
The loss left him shaken.
"I was married at the time. I had two young kids -- 2 and 4 years old. I was thinking about if it was me what would happen with them," said Neverve, his eyes moistening.
"There was shock and awe. But I had to think, yeah, we know this is a tough job. We all understand that we can be shot or killed, we all take that responsibility and we accept it. I had to accept it. The next few days were awful trying, but I still had my shift to work and my family to think of. I was the breadwinner for the family, so I had to work. I couldn't fall apart."
Neverve couldn't attend Cole's funeral because it conflicted with his work schedule. But his current assignment is providing some closure.
"After all these years, the word got out that I was the only one who knew him and worked with him. I was asked to take on this role of honoring him, which is long overdue," Neverve said.
The memorial service at Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto is open to the public and will begin at 11 a.m. Thursday, Lt. Zach Perron said. Police Chief Dennis Burns and Neverve will speak, and members of Cole's family are expected to attend.
Perron said he believes the event will resonate with current members of the police department.
"For all the officers that are working now, when they see tributes like this they know that if anything were ever to happen to them that they're not going to be forgotten by their partners," Perron said Tuesday as he stood in front of three bronze plaques that bear the names of the city's fallen officers at the police station.
Cole's death while directing traffic also underscores the inherent dangers of police work, Perron said.
"That's something that our officers do on a daily basis," Perron said. "That kind of brings it home for the newer officers. Bad stuff can happen even in a circumstance you might not think would be that dangerous."
Alta Mesa Memorial Park is located at 695 Arastradero Road. Cole's gravesite is near the intersection of Mulberry Way and Oak Grove Drive.
If you go
WHAT: Memorial service for Lester H. Cole, the first Palo Alto police officer killed on duty, in 1969.
WHEN: 11 a.m. Thursday
WHERE: Alta Mesa Memorial Park, 695 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto