Woman honored for helping spouses of slain officers

Juneau resident gets on of 29 awards for volunteers

Posted: Sunday, July 09, 2000

Sue Reishus-O'Brien of Juneau has received one of 29 First Lady Volunteer Awards for her work with Concerns of Police Survivors, an organization she first learned about when her husband was killed in the line of duty.

The awards are the state's highest honor for volunteer services. More than 150 Alaskans were nominated.

Juneau Police officer Karl Reishus died May 4, 1992, during a mountain rescue training session.

``It's hard to keep in contact with all the other survivors (of line-of-duty deaths) because we are really spread out over the state, and some of us have left the state,'' Reishus-O'Brien said. She went so far as to conduct meetings in Anchorage. But now, remarried, she has a total of five children (14, 12, 8, 3 and 1) to care for.

``What we have decided in the last couple of months is to form two chapters: a Greater Alaska chapter, which would include Anchorage, and a Southeast chapter,'' Reishus-O'Brien said.

Laurie Heck, widow of Bruce Heck, an Alaska State Trooper from Glennallen murdered in the line of duty, is helping Reishus-O'Brien with the Greater Alaska chapter. Bruce Heck died Jan. 10, 1997, while in pursuit of a suspect. When the suspect's vehicle rolled over, Heck pursued him on foot, apparently struggled with him, and died of asphyxiation.

``Laurie is interested in taking care of the Anchorage area, which would be a great relief to me. It's a great expense for me to go back and forth to (Anchorage) meetings,'' Reishus-O'Brien said.

Keeping in touch is difficult because many widows leave the state. ``They join family in the Lower 48 if they don't have family here,'' she explained.

COPS was founded nationally in 1984, with large chapters in states such as Texas and California where there are substantial numbers of line-of-duty deaths. Reishus-O'Brien first heard about COPS when the Anchorage police chaplain called her in 1992. She began holding monthly meetings in Juneau and found the going tough.

``When you start meetings and people don't understand what the group is about, it's really difficult. I think I had so much success in Southeast because Karl had worked for the Sitka Police Department before he worked in Juneau, and this made it easier to spread information,'' she added.

In 1995, she began sending ``blue ribbon'' information packets to police stations all over Alaska, making uncounted phone calls and attending national COPS events in Washington, D.C. For the past three Memorial Days, she has been one of the featured speakers at the police memorial service held at Evergreen Cemetery.

Now that she is married to Sean O'Brien, an employee of the state Department of Labor, she functions more ``in a contact capacity,'' she said, which can be both frustrating and rewarding. ``You link up with other families suffering the same sort of things you are. It's a real learning experience because families may not know all the benefits they are entitled to.''

Sean O'Brien has gone to D.C. with her, she said. ``He is familiar with my cause and has been very supportive,'' she said.

First Lady Susan Knowles called Reishus-O'Brien and other volunteer reward recipients ``champions of Alaska.''

``They're motivated by the joy of helping others and helping their communities. This award is Alaska's way of saying thank you for all your hard work,'' Knowles said.

The other 28 winners are Susan Anderson, Hope; Barbara Burch, Kodiak; Deb Burton, Dillingham; Juanita Cox, Homer; Nancy Elliot, Bethel; Richard Farris, Fairbanks; Roberta Harris, Palmer; Lola Harvey, Kodiak; Barbara Henrichs, Anchorage; Connie Johnson, Anchorage; Jim Klepak, Fairbanks; Kaela Rae Larson, Wasilla; Larry Meader, Anchorage; Sharon Merle, Sterling; Saint Belle Mickelson, Cordova; Michelle Hahn O'Leary, Cordova; Kira Olsen, Homer; Elisa Serini Patkotak, Barrow; Jonathan F. Pingayak, Chevak; Jane Stein, Soldotna; Frank Taylor, Fairbanks; Coleen Turner, Fairbanks; Linda Tyone, Copper Center; Dida Uotila, Fairbanks; Louisa Whitmarsh, Pelican; and Howard Wynia, North Pole.

The First Lady Volunteer Awards began in the 1960s with Bella Hammond. Nominations are independently reviewed and scored by five judges from different areas of the state. Their choices are tabulated to produce the top 29 volunteers.

Winners receive a plaque and a specially-made pin.

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