Sometimes, it all just comes down to being in the right place at the right time.
Gerald Olson opened the Leader-Telegram on Sunday to an article about forest fires near Boise, Idaho, and his great-niece Victoria Olson noticed a column about late Chippewa Falls police Officer Don Spike and the search by police Sgt. Deb Brettingen for a photo of him.
“The name and the circumstances of his death rang a familiar note, so she pointed me to the article,” said Mark Olson (Gerald Olson’s nephew) of Anchorage, Alaska, who had returned to his native Eau Claire with his wife, Terri, and daughter, Victoria, for a niece’s wedding. “Sure enough, earlier in the week, we had been discussing ancestry and some photos I had of deceased ancestors who I had not known, and Don Spike was one of those subjects.”
“I think I can help with Sgt. Brettingen’s search for a photo of Donald Spike …” Olson said in an email sent Monday.
The 43-year-old Spike is the Chippewa Falls department’s only officer killed in the line of duty. Trying to put together a memorial for the department’s lobby, Brettingen had been trying to hunt down a photo of the fallen officer. Exhausting all leads, she approached the newspaper in hopes someone seeing a story might have what she had been searching for.
When she learned Monday that Mark Olson did, she was ecstatic.
“This is absolutely amazing,” she said. “It was meant to happen.”
But the story got even better Tuesday. Alerted to the Leader-Telegram column by her husband, Michael, Barbara Murphy of Chippewa Falls called her older sister Shirley Morgan in El Paso, Texas, to ask if she had any photos of “Uncle Don.”
Spike and his wife, Stella, were Shirley Morgan’s godparents (Shirley Morgan’s and Barbara Murphy’s mother, Agnes, was Stella Spike’s sister), and the couple often “stole her away” for weekend visits, Morgan said. When Stella died, Agnes wanted Morgan to have old photos and other items.
“I was the closest thing they had to having a child,” Morgan said.
About 15 minutes after Murphy’s call to her sister, her phone rang, and Morgan told her she had found a photo of their uncle in his police uniform, along with his badge.
“It was such a shock when he died,” said Morgan, who was a sophomore in high school when Spike was killed on Sept. 29, 1950.
How he fell
The evening of his death, Spike was directing traffic on Jefferson Avenue after the end of the Chippewa Falls-Rice Lake football game at the fairgrounds, and he was struck by a car. The driver, Arthur Stilson of Eau Claire, told police he didn’t see Spike until an instant before his car struck the officer. Witnesses said the pavement was wet and vision was difficult.
Spike died at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Following testimony, a coroner’s jury returned a verdict finding Spike’s death to be accidental.
“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people came” to pay their respects, recalled Morgan, noting his memorial book was full. “He was well-liked and loved.”
Describing her uncle as a big kid, Morgan said “he loved to play with you and tease you.”
Even though almost 70 years have passed, she hasn’t forgotten Spike. “He was like a second dad to me,” Morgan said. “I loved him, and we were all just so upset to lose him.”
Mark Olson’s father, the late John Olson, had spent a lot of time on family genealogy, and after his death, the younger Olson inherited all his dad’s family tree files. After his mother, Joyce, passed away in June, Olson decided to enter the genealogy information into an online service, along with old photos and documents.
The late Stella Spike, who later remarried, was John and Gerald Olson’s aunt. During Mark Olson’s trip to Eau Claire, he had a photo of Don Spike with him, and earlier in the week, he had acquired two others from a cousin. When he returned to Alaska, Olson, a military veteran like Spike, discovered a few more.
Both Olson and Morgan were willing to share their photos with Brettingen, ending her quest for a picture of the fallen officer she wants no one to forget.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing that they want to honor him,” Morgan said.
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ON THE WEB: Sunday’s newspaper column about Don Spike: tinyurl.com/y7vj98w5