When the call came over his radio about possible drownings in Chennault Park the afternoon of June 29, 1983, Marvin Dearman of the Monroe Police was patrolling his zone maybe 7 miles from the Louisiana park and the fateful pond by the Critter’s Creek water slide.
“Critter’s Creek,” Dearman repeated over the phone last week.
As he said it, you could practically feel Dearman shaking his head with lament over all that had conspired there to take the lives of two children and Joe Delaney.
Delaney, a 24-year-old budding star running back with the Chiefs, had scrambled into the water to try to save the two boys and, some believe, rescued a third.
To this day, Dearman isn’t sure what to make of conflicting versions of how the third boy, LeMarkits Holland, managed to survive.
But he knows this: Joe Delaney lost his life trying to save drowning children he didn’t know.
And Joe Delaney could not swim.
Near as anyone could remember then, he’d never even gone in any body of water.
From about any vantage point or distance, this still is an unbearable story, a juxtaposition of a pureness of heart and cruel reality.
Imagine how it might feel at the most intimate distance, to have been the one who pulled Delaney from the water.
“Let me tell you what somebody taught me a long time ago,” said Dearman, 66, who worked with the department during 1971-2002 and now manages Kilpatrick’s Serenity Gardens Cemetery. “In the police department, you deal with death all the time. And some of it’s not very pretty.
“So you never look ’em in the eye. If you look ’em in the eye, you’ve made a connection. So when you do something like that, you just don’t look ’em in the eye.”
Dearman didn’t look Delaney in the eye that day. But this still became a connection, one forever emblazoned in his mind.
“I kind of think of it,” Dearman said, “as the experience that never ends.”
While Dearman was among those desperate to keep Delaney alive, Phil Kloster of Lee’s Summit remains among those impassioned about keeping alive the memory of Delaney, who wore No. 37 for the Chiefs in 1981 and 1982 and was AFC rookie of the year.
Never mind that Monday will mark a random sort of anniversary of his death, 32 years.
Forget that the “37 Forever Foundation” that Kloster helped found and fleetingly provided swimming lessons for inner-city children in Kansas City dissolved about a decade ago, having lost momentum when Delaney was inducted into the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor in 2004 and when few beyond the earnest group seemed engaged in the cause.
To Kloster, and surely many of the others who were involved — and really, anyone who has the slightest notion of Delaney, the spirit of Delaney bears mention always and forever.
It lives on, of course, in his family: his widow, Carolyn, and three young girls. Carolyn never remarried because, she’d tell friends, she never got past Joe. The three girls graduated from college and went on to careers in medicine.
(But more family trauma, alas, lay ahead. Oldest daughter Tamika’s husband, Rodney, died in a shooting. Joe’s sister, Alma, lost a son in another drowning accident).
Delaney’s legacy, though, hardly could be articulated with more eloquence than the words of scripture that adorn his remote grave site at Hawkins Cemetery in Bossier Parish:
“GREATER LOVE HAS NO MAN THAN TO LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR ANOTHER.”
So much about this story still grips Kloster, a contractor and publisher of The GreenSummit Dispatch, who dropped everything on short notice the other day for a chance to talk about Delaney.
In an era characterized by the misdeeds of athletes, or at least the intensified attention to that, Delaney by all indications lived as selflessly as his final act suggests.
Kloster is riveted by the inherent good in Delaney’s final deed, part of what still makes him cry every time he sees a television segment about it.
He may soon be seeing more: Dearman said Carolyn Delaney told him that ESPN will debut a “30 For 30” special on Delaney in August. According to ESPN, the piece is a digital short, about 19 minutes long, that will premiere Aug. 19 on Grantland.com.
That will be a good thing for Kloster, who worries that the name of a true hero is eroding with time and that the meaning of Delaney’s sacrifice and example is diminishing in the process.
It’s been a long time, after all, since Delaney was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal and Carolyn received a letter from President Ronald Reagan hoping that she could draw comfort in knowing her husband had been more concerned for the safety of others than himself and “surely earned his place in heaven” for what he did.
Because so many people do know how to swim and maybe can’t relate to what Delaney took on, Kloster describes his sense of Delaney’s decision that day thusly:
“If you don’t know how fire works, if you don’t understand the dynamics and how it burns and everything, it’s kind of like running into a burning building trying to save somebody you don’t know,” he said. “You don’t know where they are. All you can hear is their screams, and you go in and try to save them.”
When the “37 Forever Foundation” was active, Kloster said the group would hear from songwriters or screenplay writers interested in Delaney’s tale.
Nothing ever would quite come from it.
As he thinks of a way to sustain the memory of Delaney now, he still hopes a movie might be made to do it justice in people’s consciousness.
“Like ‘Brian’s Song’ when I was a kid,” he said, referring to the story of Brian Piccolo of the Chicago Bears and his death from cancer at 26. “ ‘Brian’s Song’ was so big. But this is a better story … if done right.”
With no embellishment necessary.
As Dearman considers Critter’s Creek, he thinks of all the things that might have gone otherwise.
“Can’t help but run through your mind,” he said, even though he knows the perils of dwelling too much on things like this.
It starts with the existence of the water itself in the hole that had been left in making a foundation for the water slide.
It became filled up with rainwater over time, Dearman said, and was tended to for aesthetics.
The water wasn’t meant for swimming but wasn’t fenced off, either, and it was appealing to children on a sweltering day waiting for their turn on the slide.
A crude, hand-written “No swimming” sign was posted on a tree by the pond only after the drownings that put an end to any amusements there, an incident that might have gone entirely differently today.
Seconds save lives, Dearman said a few times, and all these years later he still thinks about how those seconds became minutes that day in ways they wouldn’t have now.
“They didn’t have cell phones then, and this was in a park where there wasn’t a real abundance of any kind of phones,” he said. “We don’t know how long it took somebody to run to a pay phone to call the police. We didn’t even have 911 at the time.
“Kind of like old-school stuff.”
What was relatively modern, though, was that Monroe had created a dive rescue team, for which Dearman volunteered.
Louisiana, after all, has a lot of water: bayous and lakes and rivers and ponds and mudholes, each of which represents a hazard.
Dearman and others came to believe that dragging for bodies — using what he called “big hooks” to retrieve them — was “an inhumane way to find somebody, especially with the families waiting on the banks for you to bring them up.”
So Dearman and several colleagues were trained as specialists, which meant learning about things like “mammalian diving reflex,” the body’s physiological reaction to cold water that allows it to conserve oxygen and energy.
“But the water temperature here in Louisiana,” he said, “is never as low as what we’d like for it to be.”
That would reduce the window of opportunity for saving someone, but probably not as much as this:
“It’s called ‘dark-water searching,’” Dearman said. “You can’t see your hand in front of your face. So all of it is by feel, and you just go under and you start doing a pattern until you touch somebody.”
The good news is that by Dearman’s recollection the dive and rescue team retrieved 78 bodies over the years.
In the process, they delivered some form of closure for distraught families and could feel they had done everything they possibly could to save their loved ones.
But the bad thing, Dearman said, was that they never were able to save anyone.
One of those episodes remains more haunting than the rest.
After Dearman got the call that day, he hurried to his nearby home to get his scuba equipment and zoomed to the park.
By then, chaos ruled. Hundreds were looking on and dozens were milling nearby, the fallout of a huge crowd drawn by the offer of free admission on a steamy day.
Three kids had gone in the water, Dearman recalls being told by another policeman upon his arrival. One had made it out, but the other two had disappeared in water that was only about 6 feet deep at its edge but would turn out to have a steep drop-off.
Dearman donned his scuba gear, jumped in and began to search. He quickly found one child and brought him up on the bank and started CPR.
An ambulance soon arrived, emergency personnel took over CPR and Dearman went back in the water.
He promptly found the other child and brought him up and started taking off his gear and administering CPR, believing all were out of the water.
Then another policeman approached.
“He said, ‘Somebody just handed me this wallet,’” Dearman said. “‘And they said that this guy jumped in the water, too, and nobody has seen him.’”
As he thinks about the wallet now, Dearman can only surmise Delaney’s poignant act of handing it to somebody as he ran into the water was because he didn’t want to get it wet.
After being shown the wallet, Dearman put back on whatever gear he’d removed and went right back in water so dark “you couldn’t see an inch below the surface.”
Almost immediately, he said, he “landed right on top” of Delaney, who had been wearing a tank top and shorts and flip-flops.
Delaney had a pulse when Dearman brought him up with his legs reportedly tangled in weeds, a detail that Dearman doesn’t now recall.
But try as they might to revive the man many knew of but didn’t then know to be him, Delaney soon was pronounced dead at St. Francis Medical Center.
As Dearman surveyed the water one last time before leaving for the hospital, he remembers seeing flip-flips floating in the water.
Shortly after he arrived at the hospital, a nurse went through the wallet to identify the hero-victim. She called Dearman over.
“Do you know who this guy is?” Dearman remembered her saying. “This is Joe Delaney, the football player.”
For all the reports from and about the death of Delaney, some confusion remains about the tragedy on a day Delaney had driven his blue Mercury Cougar some 90 miles from his home in Haughton to the park, apparently as part of a promotion.
“It’s not a story; it’s two or three stories,” Kloster said. “You hear one guy tell it, it’s one way. You hear somebody else tell, it’s another.”
Reports contradict everything from where Delaney was standing or sitting to what he saw or heard that compelled him to enter the water with such abandon.
There even remains disagreement about what actually happened.
It long was stated as fact, for instance, that Delaney had saved then 10-year-old LeMarkits Holland, whose older brother, Harry, 11, and cousin, Lancer Perkins, died.
But Rosetta Thomas, the mother of Perkins and the aunt of the Holland boys, has told the Monroe News-Star that she saw LeMarkits Holland out of the water before Delaney went in.
She knows that for a fact, she added, because she told Delaney “my baby is in the water” and watched him dive in with LeMarkits nearby after perhaps being saved by another cousin.
LeMarkits himself has given conflicting explanations over the years, and in a 2008 interview with The Star he indicated he was uncertain who had saved him.
When it seemed certain Delaney had saved LeMarkits Holland, Holland’s fate was a matter of considerable interest to those moved by Delaney’s act.
So it was another crushing aspect of the story to know that Holland — either unable to appreciate the gift of being saved or unable to handle it — had sold cocaine for about a decade before he was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to a year of hard labor and five years’ probation.
Lest Delaney’s death be known for another miserable twist, when The Star last was able to speak with Holland in 2008, he had been clean for five years, working at a zoo in Monroe and aiming to make a good life for his four children.
If some elements of this remain murky, though, a light shines on all this like a beacon through clouds.
A lot of people were there that day, paralyzed or mesmerized by what was happening, or somehow oblivious to it.
Only Delaney is known to have had the alertness and fortitude to do all he could do to try to make a difference, an admirable act of conscience if not an entirely advisable one.
Knowing it was no one he knew.
Knowing it was nothing he knew how to do.
But knowing that it was what he had to do, even if it meant, consciously or unconsciously, dying as he lived.
That moment also needs to mean that he lives on for how he died. It’s a notion that those who seek to keep Delaney’s name alive share with the man who tried to keep Delaney alive, Dearman, whose greatest solace is Carolyn Delaney telling him she knows they tried with all they had.
Maybe that means more formal recognition, or more visible monuments and memorials — such as the proposed park in Haughton that Kloster says never has come together.
Maybe it means trying to summon his selfless way of being in everyday acts.
Or maybe it just means honoring Joe Delaney by knowing who he was and thinking about him.
“The people of Kansas City should be proud that he was a Chief,” Dearman said, “and they should always remember him.”