With one measure of a man being how many friends he has, Officer Jim Armbrister seemed richer than Bill Gates Saturday as he surveyed a crowded Wallace Shelton Stadium.
Between 400 and 500 people had gathered there for “Officer Jim Day,” the main purpose of which was to raise money — more than $24,000 in all — to help offset Armbrister’s medical expenses as he fights a deadly form of cancer.
And it quickly grew evident that love and support, also being generated there by the crowd, would enter the realm of the priceless.
Folks came to participate in a three-mile run/walk that started at the stadium and looped through the downtown area, as well as for a raffle offering an array of choice prizes for which tickets had been sold for weeks. They also listened to live music from a band featuring local emergency services official John Shelton.
But they mostly came to register a collective thank-you to “Officer Jim,” a member of the Mount Airy Police Department since 1994 who is credited with launching the school resource officer program at local campuses. He also has played a key role with D.A.R.E. and additional activities in schools, and led safety and other programs through his role as head of the department’s Community Services Division.
“It’s unbelievable to me,” a smiling Armbrister said as he stood at the edge of the Mount Airy High School football field and greeted a steady stream of well-wishers.
The crowd included students, teachers and parents whose lives have been touched over the years by Armbrister’s work, along with fellow officers and city employees along with citizens at large.
“It’s good to see a cross-section of the whole community here,” longtime city school board member David Rowe said of the gathering that included both young and old.
“I think it’s great to see the people of Mount Airy support a good policeman,” Rowe continued. “He’s a good friend.”
In addition to their financial support, many were wearing T-shirts bearing the inscription, “Running Back-Up for Officer Jim.”
“He’s done so much for our schools,” Tarona Hollingsworth said as she and her daughter Kylie entered the stadium.
Armbrister was diagnosed with a type of cancer that involves tumors striking areas surrounding the liver.
He did not sugar-coat the severity of his illness Saturday during an opening program for the event, after taking the microphone on a stage set up temporarily at the stadium.
Armbrister explained that surgery is not an option, because of fears that the liver will be damaged, and chemotherapy can’t be used for the same reason. However, radiation has been employed recently to attack one tumor that has been causing severe pain.
“It’s listed as not curable,” the veteran officer said of his cancer.
“But with this kind of support,” Armbrister added of those assembled, “I don’t know that we’re not going to be the first to be cured of it.”
Though he used a cane at times Saturday, Armbrister remained upbeat.
“Would you like to see a miracle?” he asked after energetically appearing onstage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. “If I had a big old mirror, I’d show you — because you’re the miracle for me.”
Although his cancer is considered incurable, Armbrister says a recent diagnostic report indicates that the tumors are shrinking and he has every reason to hope for an ultimate medical miracle.
“Cancer’s not going to be able to say, ‘I fought the law and won,’” a defiant Armbrister said in referencing a popular oldies song.
Others associated with the Mount Airy Police Department also attested to Armbrister’s fighting spirit.
“He is a warrior,” Police Chief Dale Watson said. “He knows the battle before him and he is in for the fight.”
In the meantime, Armbrister has retired from the police department, effective June 1. He did so in order to spend “quality time” with his family, according to Mayor Deborah Cochran, who read a proclamation at the program officially declaring Saturday as “Officer Jim Day.”
“My only concern basically is my family,” Armbrister said at one point Saturday. It includes two young sons.
The proclamation read by the mayor cited Armbrister’s “invaluable contributions” to public safety.
“Jim has been the face of the police department in our community,” Chief Watson said, pointing to Armbrister’s longtime presence as its liaison for various programs.
In commenting on the turnout, “It just shows the legacy he’s left behind,” Watson said. “You can’t replace a guy like Jim.”
Similar compliments were in abundance Saturday along with sunshine, contributions and the people.
“I’ve known Jim for years and just think the world of him,” said Shannon Stommel, a former city government employee spotted in the crowd with her son and daughter. “I just think he’s an amazing man.”
Tharrington Primary School Principal Lydia Lovell, who played a key role in organizing Saturday’s event, said during the program that children at her school were deeply touched by Armbrister’s illness and tried to help.
Holding up a tennis ball can, she said they filled up cans with whatever coins and small bills they could, along with donating tooth-fairy money or giving proceeds from a lemonade stand.
Some couldn’t contribute money to the cause, but offered kind thoughts, Lovell said, mentioning a note to Armbrister from one pupil who wrote: “I hope you get better.”
Keith Easter, who spearheaded Saturday’s Walk/Run for Officer Jim, seemed overwhelmed by the turnout.
“Man, I can’t believe it,” Easter said. “I mean, I was hoping for it,” he added, but until the event actually occurred its success was a question mark.
“It’s way beyond what we thought,” Easter summed-up. “It’s unbelievable how the community has poured its heart out.”
Chief Watson said the response shows what people power can achieve for a worthy purpose. “When we come together, good things can be accomplished, and I think that is what has happened here today.”
Gray Shelton, a retired detective with the city police department who now serves as its chaplain, said the attendance was a direct result of the impact Jim Armbrister has had on so many local families.
“By being here today, you’re helping to bear Jim’s burden,” Shelton told the gathering. “You being here — you can’t put a price tag on that. Your expression of love just says it all.”
The outpouring appeared to give the guest of honor a boost no medicine could. “I can’t find the words, really, to thank you,” Armbrister told the well-attended gathering during the opening program.
He later climbed into the passenger seat of a Gator, a type of all-terrain vehicle, and helped lead the throng of walkers and runners out of the stadium for their trek through the downtown area and back.
Earlier the retired officer had told the crowd, in other remarks with a determined tone, that he plans on being around for a long time to come. He made a special point of informing everyone that he now has a listed telephone number and can continue to be consulted on topics such as home security.
“I’ve left the department, but I’m not gone,” he said.
“I’ll continue to serve the community for years to come.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.