Bailey Kerstetter was just 8 when her father, Elyria police Officer James Kerstetter, was killed in the line of duty a year ago today.
The day after his death, the beautiful, blond girl was being comforted by her grandmother, Carol Kerstetter, when she posed an innocent question: Who was going to help her get on the school bus each morning?
That was her Daddy’s job, and he was there rain or shine.
A year later, James’ parents, Carol and James Kerstetter, have solved that problem. Each morning, they wake up at 6 a.m. in their Elyria Township home to head to their only son’s home so they can be there for Bailey.
“It was Jimmy’s job and now it’s ours,” Carol Kerstetter said Friday from her home.
That’s pretty much how the last year has been for the Kerstetter family — trying to fill the hole left by the loss of the well-liked officer, who was ambushed after answering a call on 18th Street about a neighbor disturbance.
The officer left behind a wife, Tammy Kerstetter, and three daughters — Misty, Shelby and Bailey in addition to his immediate and extended family in the area.
“Yup. That’s our job,” said Kelly Strickler, Kerstetter’s older sister. “We have stepped up and whatever Tammy needs, we do.”
“Tammy knows who to call when she needs something,” Carol Kerstetter added.
When the basement flooded at the home the officer shared with his wife and daughters, her brother-in-law came over armed with a sump pump.
When the Kerstetter home needed to be power-washed and the backyard swimming pool opened before Misty Kerstetter’s high school graduation party, the Kerstetter family made it a group event.
When there was carpet to pull up at the house — a huge manual job that would have been the job the officer did for his family — needed to get done, his sisters plastered smiles on their faces and got down on their hands and knees.
“Oh, but we cussed him for that one,” sister Kristy Sawyers said. “I mean, who did Jimmy get to put that carpet in anyway? There was like 500 tacks on the steps alone and we had to pull up every single one. I just kept saying, ‘I know he’s up there laughing about this one.’ ”
Before March 15, 2010, the Kerstetter clan — an accurate description when grandparents, sisters, uncles and cousins are in the picture — was a close-knit family known to vacation together or head to one another’s home for the holidays.
So when they lost one of their own, the ties that bind the Kerstetter family grew tighter and wrapped his wife and daughters up in the security of their strong family.
Tammy and the girls weren’t at a recent family sit-down to talk about the past year. They are trying to go on with their lives as best they can, and they have found that staying busy helps, Carol Kerstetter said.
Misty Kerstetter, who was a high school senior facing the prospect of college when she lost her father, now is a pre-med freshman at The Ohio State University.
Shelby Kerstetter is an athletic powerhouse who plays volleyball and runs track in high school. She just got her temporary driver’s license and is known to say she is an exceptional driver.
And little Bailey Kerstetter is the helper of the family. When she is not in school, she can be found hanging out with her father’s sister, Kathy Kerstetter, at Lowe’s where — through a Make and Take program — she can make do-it-yourself crafts or she’s with her grandmother, cooking in her kitchen.
To answer the big question of how they are doing, Strickler simply says her nieces and sister-in-law are OK.
“They are smiling again,” she said. “That family has always been happy and Tammy is working hard for them to be happy again.”
To reach that point meant doing things differently in this past year. As the family swapped stories, pictures from the family’s Christmastime cruise sit within arm’s reach and the conversation shifts to how much the girls loved being on the big boat.
Early on, Carol Kerstetter delivered the edict that the family only would celebrate her son’s life in a way that worked for them, and at Christmastime, that meant a group getaway to ease facing the holidays at home without James Kerstetter.
“We didn’t know whether it was right or wrong, but it was right for us,” Sawyers said.
And on this day, the day that their world changed, Carol Kerstetter said she’ll go to church and later cook dinner for her family. Whether she or other family members attend the moment of silence planned by the Elyria Police Department hasn’t been decided.
“This time is almost worse than the funeral,” she said. “Then, people told us where to go, what to do and we just went through the motions. Now, we just have so much time to think. It’s almost too hard.”
But that doesn’t mean the family isn’t grateful for the support of the community. They’ve been showered with events from candlelight vigils to steak fries, and they appreciate that the community has worked so hard to keep James Kerstetter’s memory alive.
They’ve tried to come up with an adequate way to thank the community, but Carol Kerstetter said there simply aren’t any words to express their gratitude appropriately.
In addition to the very public events, there have been many subtle reminders to her that her son’s legacy lives on.
For example, she received a Christmas card from a grandmother who enclosed a photograph of her grandchild — a grandchild she believes is only here because of Kerstetter and several other officers who went into a burning house to alert the sleeping family to a fire. The mother of the baby was pregnant at the time, but with the aid of officers was able to climb out of a first floor window to safety just as firefighters were arriving.
She’s also been on the receiving end of hugs from complete strangers, and many have left mementos at the officer’s gravesite — the most visited gravesite at the cemetery, Carol Kerstetter said she was told on a recent visit.
She said even those times when people don’t know what to say, but manage to say “I’m sorry for your loss” have helped the family heal, she said.
“I would rather have them say something to me and I break down and cry than to not saying anything, to forget,” Sawyers said. “People say time heals all wounds. I just hope I live long enough to heal from this.”
Strickler added, “We just keep hearing the stories. I think Jimmy was a socialite and went around talking to everyone. But those stories let us know people liked Jimmy and will continue to embrace us.”
Nearing the end of a marathon session of stories, the tears were just as plentiful as the laughter. Even when one sister would tell the other not to cry, the tears would come until someone said a joke and a round of laughter broke through the sadness like a sledgehammer.
The elder James Kerstetter, a former fire chief who sat nearly silent for almost two hours while his family members talked, finally spoke of how he has dealt with the loss of his only son.
“It gets to me,” he said. “Some people think nothing can get to them. I once worked for the undertaker carting our burned children from fires, and that didn’t get to me. I just did it.
“But this? This knocked the wind out of me.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.