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Gridlock Guy: Not feeling lost eight years after losing Captain Herb

There are two definitive paths that fork in a time of adversity. The path of sadness, frustration, resignation and any number of negative emotions is wide and downhill. It’s an inviting route that loves company, but it has little payoff at the bottom of that hill. In fact, the decline just continues.

But then there is the other path, a narrow, sinewing dirt trail that goes uphill. And while those mad and sad emotions show up on the path, a certain amount of determination can convert those into the energy to keep pushing on. This is a path of resilience and of purpose - a path whose mission is to leverage that adversity into bettering planet Earth.

We read last week in this space about Mike Lutzenkirchen and his family facing losing 23-year old Philip Lutzenkirchen in an alcohol-related crash. They used that tragedy to form the Lutzie 43 Foundation, which campaigns for safe driving to people of all ages. They started this new mission just months after Phillip’s 2014 death.

2014 also was a year that changed many people who knew Captain Herb Emory. On the afternoon of April 12th, Emory collapsed from a heart attack. He was directing traffic with his Douglas County police buddies after helping pull people from a crash right in front of his house. He had just turned 61 ten days before, by helping christen the opening of the new I-85/GA-400 flyover ramps, which later would bear his name.

Emory’s poetic death - a traffic reporter and community servant dying while doing both - inspired many of us that knew him and some that did not to try to do the same.

That materialized by many of us throwing ourselves into the annual Toys for Tots drive at Fred’s BBQ House on Thornton Road in Lithia Springs every December. That site also saw the Captain Herb Memorial Ride added each May for a few years.

Captain Herb’s niece, Tayler Adams, founded the Captain Herb Memorial Fund, which spent the first year after his death collecting money for the charities closest to Emory’s heart. She even held a horse-riding showcase as a fundraiser.

The WSB Traffic Team created “Mission 83″ in the first year after his passing, combining as a team of a dozen people to do 83 charity events, the same number that Captain Herb had on his calendar the last year he was alive. 83. For one person. True story.

WSB Traffic Trooper (a listener who calls info into the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center) Mike “Disc Golf Driver” Haney founded a Toys for Tots Disc Golf Tournament several years ago in McDonough. He drew inspiration from both Emory and the Harris family at Fred’s BBQ House, who worked together to do their Toys for Tots event.

Haney’s event raised $11,000 in 2021 to help Georgia children have a better Christmas.

No other person felt the loss of Emory worse than his wife, Karen. His untimely death left her with both a huge hole in her heart but also left her holding the weight of all the things Captain Herb did to help others both together with her and also on his own. She scrambled, as her phone and texts buzzed off the hook, to organize events and mobilize people, all the while feeling an intense pain inside.

But pushing through with that activity, with the support of close family and friends helped her push through.

Karen Emory became the point person for the Toys for Tots drive at Fred’s BBQ House. She worked with some of Captain Herb’s buddies to make sure his replica Mayberry Patrol Car made appearances at different events. She threw herself into childhood literacy, establishing a scholarship in Captain Herb’s name to help children learn to read and write. She helped take care of his aging mom, Joyce, who lived in North Carolina.

And during that first morose and jubilant year after Captain Herb’s passing, Karen also fielded numerous calls to come to different tributes for the love of her life. She and I and several others from 95.5 WSB and Captain Herb’s inner circle attended the State Capitol to hear a resolution in his honor. She coordinated with lawmakers on the naming of two different overpasses in his name. She attended a ceremonial unveiling of a garden with Captain Herb’s name on it at the Douglas County Courthouse and his enshrinement in the Hampton, Georgia Speedway Lane (alongside Richard Petty).

Conyers NASCAR driver Chris Cockrum ran a paint scheme with both Captain Herb and WSB colors during the Labor Day weekend Atlanta Motor Speedway Xfinity Series race. Like that No. 87 Chevy, Karen Emory and those of us closest to Captain Herb were in overdrive.

But as time has passed and the tributes have quieted, the gain button squelching out those deep groans of hurt turned down. Before time can heal wounds, it has to slow down and let people feel them. And that has been what has happened since then.

And this is when people who are hurting - like those of us on Earth who benefited the most from Captain Herb Emory’s heavenly light - come to that pivotal fork in the road again.

Do we sink easily into that valley of grief or do we push hard up that mountain of service? When people hit that crossroads, they should rely on their faith and they should ask the question, “What would the person I’m grieving for want?”

Captain Herb tragically lost his son in 2007 and channeled his grief by leaning hard into his job reporting on Atlanta traffic. He signed up for even more charitable events and, when there wasn’t a cause on tap, he worked hard landscaping his Douglasville garden. He kept moving. He kept interacting with people. He didn’t retreat.

Mike Lutzenkirchen said he and his family were in a black hole for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2014, but they asked the right question. And, as Lutzenkirchen told me with tears in his eyes, he hopes for one thing.

“There will be a day where I will hug my son again and he’ll say, ‘Well done, dad.’”

That is what we hope and know again one day, too: that whenever we get to unite in Heaven with our Captain, that he will give the same approval.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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