The Palo Alto Police Department held a moving ceremony Thursday to remember an officer killed in the line of duty. There's just one twist: he was killed four decades ago. NBC Bay Area's Joe Rosato Jr. reports.
No one ever really forgot Lester Cole. Not entirely.
Certainly not his widow Peggy and their three kids. And not the Palo Alto Police Department where officers would gather at his plaque each year to mark the anniversary of his death.
But in the 44 years since the reserve police officer was killed by a car while laying out flares at an accident scene, no one had gathered at his grave to pay proper tribute.
"For whatever reason, he was overlooked," said retired Palo Alto police officer Dennis Neverve.
Maybe it's because Cole was the first of three officers killed in the line of duty, and memories are fleeting. Or maybe it had something to do with the times.
"Primarily it's because we were in the midst of the Vietnam War," said Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns. "Typically in those days police funerals were attended by folks who might want to interrupt and cause some havoc."
Whatever the reason, Cole's grave was as quiet as - well, a grave, each year when the January 31st anniversary of his death rolled around.
"We got to thinking at some point we should do a better job and go back and make it right," said Burns.
On Thursday morning, dozens of officers in crisp uniforms drifted around Cole's headstone in Alta Mesa Memorial Park. The knife-like shrill of a bagpipe cut through the air summoning all to gather.
Dennis Neverve recalled his fallen officer, whom he worked with at Lockheed Martin and as reserves on Palo Alto's police force.
It was Neverve who suggested the department finally hold a memorial service for Cole, reaching out the dead officer's family.
"We felt, not let this happen again," said Neverve, "to let him fall through the cracks."
In the thick of the gathered crowd, tucked into a row of yellow folding chairs, sat Cole's widow Peggy and two of their three children.
After his death, Peggy moved the family to San Diego to be near relatives. She said her husband much preferred camping trips to fancy gatherings, and wouldn't have minded at all that his service was 44 years late.
"That wouldn't have bothered him one way or another," she said. "He just wanted to do what he wanted to do and help others."
As a reserve officer, Cole put himself in the same dangers as other officers. The big difference is he didn't collect a paycheck.
"He volunteered for everything," said Peggy Cole. "If a neighbor any help with anything they'd come straight to him."
In fact a fellow officer said the night Cole was killed on Alma Street, he had already worked a day shift. But as the end of his shift approached, he felt as though he hadn't volunteered enough hours.
"He did not have to go back out," said Smith. "He volunteered to go back out and do some more work that evening."
At Thursday's ceremony, a radio dispatcher called out Cole's police number as a part of a long tradition to honor fallen officers.
The radio crackled and then fell silent as the department observed Cole's sacrifice.
Neverve said the ceremony may have been long overdue, but it wouldn't be the last tribute at Cole's grave.
"We will, whatever we can muster up - eight, ten, fifteen people," said Neverve. "We'll come out here every year, from now on."