The wife and children of Buddy Christian will stand by his grave March 22, the day of his death, and once again let the balloons rise high into the clouds. It’s a tradition on special days — Father’s Day, his birthday, the day of his passing.
Buddy’s wife, Melissa Christian, said it’s a good form of remembrance for her children, Callie, 10, and Wyatt, 7.
“Every anniversary of what happened we release balloons at the cemetery,” said Melissa, a Barrow County native. “They (the children) love that, especially him (Wyatt). We have a video of him. I think it was the first anniversary of his passing, we went out and had a big memorial. And there were like 200 balloons and he and Callie helped let them go. And he was just so excited and jumping up and down and you could hear him saying ‘They’re going to daddy.’”
Christian, a Madison County resident, was an Athens-Clarke County Police officer, who lost his life when he was shot through the window of his squad car by a fleeing criminal in 2011. His children were 5 and 2 at the time. Officer Tony Howard was also shot and injured in the incident. The shooter avoided the death penalty but was sentenced to life in jail.
Melissa said his passing is the first thing she thinks of every morning and the last thing at night. She said the calendar is a never-ending cycle of reminders, like Callie’s recent tenth birthday, which marked five years with her daddy and five without.
Despite the pains, Melissa said she wants her children to feel their dad’s presence and know about him. So she works to keep his memory alive.
“Yeah, it’s hard to find that balance,” said Melissa. “How much do you talk about it where they don’t get upset? But you talk about it enough so they don’t forget. It’s hard to find that balance. There’s always an overlap some way, one way or the other.”
‘PRETTY GREEN EYES’
While Buddy’s death grabbed widespread headlines, Melissa said it’s his life that is truly worth remembering. She said he was special and she recognized that early on. She was in the flag corps at Athens Christian and Buddy went to Madison County High School. They first met at an Athens Christian football game.
“I thought he had the prettiest green eyes I had ever seen,” said Melissa. “He had long eyelashes that girls would love to have.”
Shortly after meeting, the two were set up on a double date. They went to the Georgia Square Mall theater and saw “A Few Good Men.” The theater would later serve as a police office, where Buddy was stationed. They then ate at Oscars on Baxter.
“We were pretty much inseparable from then on,” said Melissa.
The two got married in 1996. Melissa said Buddy had the proposal all planned out. He had asked her parents for permission to marry her. But his big proposal didn’t go as planned.
“He picked me up to go to a drive-in movie at Commerce,” said Melissa. “Then he thought the ring he got was the wrong size, so he had to tell me about it. So he had to blow the surprise and tell me about that. So I had to go with him to the store and he was all disappointed that he didn’t have it all. But he didn’t give it to me then. He got it and we went to the dinner and went to the movie and I was like, all right are you going to give it to me already? He had a Ford Bronco at the time and he got in the floorboard of the car (as the drive-in movie played) and asked me to marry him.”
A VARIETY OF JOBS
Buddy and Melissa spent 10 years married before they had children. During that time, Buddy worked as an auto mechanic at Jefferson Ford, at Reliance in Bogart, as a janitor at their church, Hull Baptist, as a construction worker, grass cutter, as a Jackson EMC meter reader and lineman, as a repairman for Athens Janitor Supply Company. He served with the Hull Volunteer Fire Department and tried to get on with the Athens-Clarke County Fire Department.
Melissa said Buddy could “do it all” and was eager to help anyone with problems they had.
“Any of his friends — it didn’t have to be his friend — but especially his friends, if they called him and said, ‘Oh my water pipe broke,’ he’d not only say, ‘Well, this is what you do,’ he’d say, ‘I’ll be over there in five minutes,’” said Melissa. “Or electrical work. He could do anything. So he helped people wire their houses or if they had some trouble. The house we used to live in, we renovated the barn and did everything ourselves, plumbing, electronics, sheetrock, everything. So all the work helped. He would just help everybody, the car issues, whatever. He just picked all that up along the way.”
Melissa said her husband was a hard worker, but he did find time to ride a motorcycle.
“CBRs were always his favorite,” said Melissa. “So he had an old CBR Hurricane. And when we got married, we bought our land, so I sold my horses I had at the time and he sold his motorcycle. That’s how we bought our land. We bought new horses a few years later and bought him a bike.”
In 2003, Buddy took a job with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. She said he was drawn to help people and saw the department as a way to do that.
“He loved to make people smile and crack a joke,” she said. “That was his goal to make someone smile each day. That was one of the reasons he wanted to go to the police department. He wanted to help others. The fire department first and that didn’t pan out, so he still wanted to do some sort of public service.”
Melissa said she still hears from people who were helped by Buddy.
“I still get stories from people who say they only met him once, but they remember him, because he helped their child or their car was broken down and he sat with them until someone got there, or people in severe emotional distress,” she said. “When we first met, he hated to talk in front of people and was real quiet and shy. Then it was just the opposite. He loved to talk to people and he talked his way out of anything or into anything. That was just a gift he had. So, it worked well with people. He was just a great people person. He loved to do whatever he could to help somebody else and that just made him feel like he was doing what God wanted him to do.”
Buddy was the chaplain at the Hull Volunteer Fire Department and had aspirations of being the chaplain at the police department. He was in the process of getting the paperwork approved for that.
Melissa said she still hears his distinctive laugh, “loud, but not cackly” and she still hears his little phrase, “How bout cha?”
And she sees him in her children.
BECOMING A DAD
Melissa said she was recently telling Callie about the day she was born. Melissa was already on maternity leave and was going to be induced and Buddy was working on the police department’s motorcycle unit. The two met for a quick bite to eat at Burger King, “because they (officers) always want something that’s kind of quick.” The two met later and ate at Wendy’s near St. Mary’s and then checked in to the hospital.
“And she was born the next morning at 10:24,” said Melissa. “And it was funny because that’s a 10 code for you’re finished with your call. So he was dying laughing about that, a 10-24. So when he went out to the waiting room to tell our family she was here, he was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t even say anything. He had his shirt on that had her little feet on it and that was all he could do was hold the shirt out and obviously she was here. So they snapped the picture. But that was my favorite memory to tell. She stamped her feet on his shirt but on his heart too that day. And she is daddy’s little girl. And anything she wanted, she had him wrapped around her finger.”
After Callie’s birth, Buddy switched from patrol work to the traffic engineering department so he could spend more time with the family.
“But he just wasn’t happy,” said Melissa. “He was happy to be off with us, but he just missed helping others and feeling like his life was making a difference.”
Three years later, when Wyatt was born, Buddy went back to patrol work.
“When he went back, then he had the crazy hours again,” said Melissa. “So the evenings we didn’t see him. But on his days off, Callie had started Pre-K and he would take them somewhere or spend as much time as he could with them. He wouldn’t just go have a fun day. He was also still working at the church. He would be as much a part of everything as he could be. He made sure to kiss them at night and eat lunch with them when he could. And we’d meet him for dinner when we could. A lot of the restaurants remember us, because we would meet him for dinner.”
Melissa said Buddy wanted his kids to have faith in God and to be saved.
“They both are saved and have been baptized now and I know Buddy is proud, because that’s something Buddy talked about as the greatest thing we can do as a parent to make sure that is taken care of,” said Melissa. “So Callie got baptized on our anniversary Feb. 17, 2013. And then Wyatt was baptized on Feb. 17, 2015. So those are little God winks that I call them. You just know them when you see them. There are little hints of things. I just let them tell me when they were ready (to be baptized). It just happened that both of them were ready and it was close to that day and it just all worked out and it just made that day more special again that it was something we could share on that day.
She said God has helped lead them through the pain of Buddy’s absence.
“Our faith has led us through this,” said Melissa. “If I didn’t know that I’d see him again one day, I don’t know how people do it that don’t know that.”
A ‘DATE-NIGHT’ WEEKEND
The weekend before Buddy’s death included an unusual “date night.” She said she and Buddy didn’t spend much time alone together because they enjoyed being with their children.
“That’s why you have them to spend time with them and especially with his schedule, we wanted to spend as much time with them as we could,” said Melissa.
But the couple took an evening for themselves and it started with Buddy trimming their horses’ feet.
“That was another thing he learned to do was to be a farrier,” said Melissa. “And that’s hard too with the kids. So we trimmed our horses’ feet and then we went out dinner to Loco’s off Atlanta Highway, then we went to the mall and walked around and that was great, because we never did that. Then we went and picked up the kids and then church on Sunday and I can remember everything. And then Monday was like a normal day.”
‘AND THEN TUESDAY…’
Melissa took the kids to school on the day Buddy died.
“And he called me at lunchtime and I was about to go to lunch and he was at lunch and he called me,” said Melissa. “We always talked a couple of times a day. So he called me and told me he was going to come straight home from work. He had started doing exercises at work, because they had a gym at the police department there. He said he was going to come home and wash the motorcycle. He told me he would see me then.”
She said he had actually called earlier and left a message on her phone, but she didn’t hear it until later.
Melissa left her job at the University of Georgia Vet School to get some lunch that day.
“On the way back from lunch, my mom called and asked if I had talked to Buddy,” said Melissa. “She said there had been two police officers that had been shot. I told her I talked to him at 12:30 and by this time it was close to two, when he was supposed to get off from work. And I told her it was almost two and he rode his motorcycle, so he obviously can’t talk to you. So I said I’ll try to call him, but he’s probably on his bike.”
But Melissa began to feel apprehensive and then especially so after a friend called.
“Then a friend of mine called me and he works in IT at the vet school and he said ‘Where are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m headed back to the vet school,’ and he said, ‘O.K. I’ll meet you there.’ And I thought, ‘Why does he need to meet me?’ And then I got to thinking his wife was a dispatcher. And I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t adding up quite right.’ But I tried not to…I was like…I’ll just wait. I was thinking, ‘Oh it’s his arm. He’s at the hospital.’ Something like that. I just didn’t know what to think. I was trying to just calm down.”
When Melissa got back to the Vet school, her worst fears were confirmed.
“I get there and the IT guy meets me in the parking lot and he’s got this weird look on his face and I said, ‘Do you know something I don’t know?’ and he just said, ‘Come on.’ And so we walked in the building and the lab where I worked at was right inside the building. And as soon as they opened the door, my boss and my pastor and the assistant chief and a good friend of mine who works PD were all sitting there. And I was like, ‘All right, this isn’t good.’ So I turned around and ran out of the room.”
Melissa said she was running back to her car, ready to go find Buddy.
“I don’t know what I thought,” said Melissa. “I guess I thought if they didn’t tell me, then it wasn’t true. And I thought I could go find him. I met him a lot on the road to say ‘hey’ or to go eat dinner. And I knew all of his spots. I knew his area where he would be, so I thought I could find him. And it’s not true. He’s just out there at his spot where I normally see him. I don’t know. So I ran out in the parking lot and they ran after me and Mark Pulliam, an officer and good friend of ours from church, ran and grabbed me and he told me. I said, ‘Where is he?’ And he said, ‘He’s not here.’ I said, ‘The hospital?’ and he said, ‘No.’”
THE HARDEST PARTS
Melissa said she has had numerous “hardest parts” in dealing with Buddy’s death — initially, it was the fact she couldn’t go see him after his passing. It was part of a crime scene.
“I couldn’t hold his hand; I couldn’t go see for myself,” said Melissa. “I’m a visual person. I had to wait four days. Not till late that Friday afternoon did I get to see him at the funeral home, because they took him to the crime lab. And I couldn’t do anything. Even his friends that were at the scene. Some of them could compartmentalize and do what they had to do. And others couldn’t. So they had to keep them away. And I know now, because we went to court. Everyone there had to say what they did. Who closed the door? Who did this, who did that? So if I had done anything, I would have had to been up there testifying.”
Melissa said she and Buddy thought they’d have a long life together and then one would pass away in the presence of the other, perhaps holding their hand. The shooting took away that possibility.
“So not only did he — I don’t say his (the shooter’s) name — take Buddy away from me, but he took away that moment,” said Melissa. “We met when we were 16. We thought we would live forever, of course, and grow old together and be there when that happened. And I didn’t even get to go see. And I still feel like I should have pushed a little harder to go, but there probably was no way they would have let me.”
Of course, a new “hardest part” loomed — telling the children. As family arrived at their house, the children were unaware of what happened. And Melissa held off telling them for a day.
“I didn’t tell them that day,” she said. “All our family was there. There was too much going on. Callie was 5 and Wyatt was 2. They had no idea. They thought, ‘family is here’ and they were playing in the yard having a great time. Callie is a lot like Buddy in that she loves people and can talk and doesn’t meet a stranger. And she has his love like that. And so she was so happy to have all those people, pushing her on the swing and felt like she was the center of attention. She was having so much fun.”
TELLING THE CHILDREN
Melissa said they spent that night at her grandmother’s.
“The next day is when I told her and I just made it real generic and I just told her he had gotten hurt at work trying to help a friend and help someone and that he went to heaven,” said Melissa. “What helped her was that we had a dog, (Ginger) a Dalmatian, that passed away when she was 3. I don’t know how she remembers. But she does and she would ask about that dog forever and we would talk about heaven.”
Callie was certain that her father was now taking care of Ginger in heaven.
“But her concern, you think of a child’s mind, he would always make them paper airplanes,” said Melissa. “We would go and wait for him to get off work and he would make them paper airplanes and they would fly them down the hall. And she said, ‘So who will make my paper airplanes?’ Thankfully, I found some of the ones he had made and I kept them for her.”
Melissa said it took awhile for Callie to understand her father’s passing.
“So it’s been a constant,” she said. “Each milestone is a thing. And I didn’t tell her what happened and all that. And then she found out from her friend at school, because it was on the news. Then I had to go through the whole story.”
Melissa said Wyatt was 2 and didn’t understand anything.
“His thing then was he couldn’t understand where he was and why he wasn’t coming home,” said Melissa. “And every time the phone would ring, he would think it was him and he would say I want to talk to daddy. And it would just, uh, tear your heart out. And anytime a motorcycle would come down the road or somebody was on the tractor helping me take care of the farm, he thought it was him. Or a truck, a diesel, all those things he associated with daddy. But then I would think, he remembers at least. It’s hard that he’s upset, but he remembers.”
She said Wyatt asks tough questions.
“As he gets older, he’s trying to understand,” said Melissa. “He’s been hunting and he shot a little 22 and he’s done that. So he knows about guns, but he just is still trying to understand. He asks me, ‘How does a gun do that?’ He doesn’t understand how something can hurt you like that. And he asks me, ‘Why would that man do that?’ His mind is trying to understand things.”
WORKING TO HELP OTHERS
Melissa has remarried since Buddy’s death. She is now wed to David Griffeth, who works at the Athens Police Department as a criminal analyst, not an officer. David was appointed as the liaison between the department and the family after Buddy’s death.
“As time went on, he did a lot to help with our house build and all that,” said Melissa. “And God just works in mysterious ways. So he’s great with the kids and he has a son who’s 14. So I have a stepson now. And they all get along great together. His name is Mason. And they all fit together.”
Melissa said David helps keep Buddy’s memory alive. There are pictures through the house. And he speaks with the kids about their father. He makes them paper airplanes quite often.
Wyatt still loves to play on the swing set Buddy built.
“He told David, ‘That’s where I feel closest to daddy, when I’m swinging,’” said Melissa.
BUDDY CHRISTIAN FOUNDATION
David helped Melissa start the Buddy Christian Foundation, which is focused on helping the families of officers killed in the line of duty and with improving safety for officers. Melissa said she’s pushing to have police cars with bullet-proof windows.
“That’s the only thing that would have saved him that day,” she said.
The foundation is also focused on providing police departments with “Buddy Kits,” which include first-aid supplies that can help a wounded officer doctor himself if needed.
“The idea is that it can be self aid,” said Melissa. “So if they got hurt, if they had it on them. Everything has Velcro and zippers so that they can use it one-handed. It’s got lots of life-saving tools, a cat-tourniquet they can use one handed. Doctors like them because they don’t do too much pressure. Those are some issues with other tourniquets. They have chest seals, a front and a back so if you had an entry and an exit wound, you could close those, some clotting gauze, really nice bandage scissors that will actually cut something. David helped me come up with that. With him being a criminal analyst, he sees a lot of these things and he talked with the officers about what would be useful.”
The kits were issued to all officers with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. And the foundation is trying to get them to more officers.
Melissa said an officer used the kit to help someone in downtown Athens after a fight. She said several lives have been saved in Athens by use of the Buddy Kits.
“We had a kid downtown who had been stabbed at a bar and one of our officers got there and used a tournequit and saved him,” she said.
Melissa is also part of several organizations that focus on fallen officers and their families. Likewise, she participates in the annual Police Unity Tour Bicycle Ride, a 260-mile trek from Portsmouth, Va., to Washington, D.C. Melissa initially declined the offer to participate in the first year, but then changed her mind, determining that if “somebody is going to ride for Buddy, it’s going to be me.”
She said she looks forward to the day when the kids can ride with her. They have to be 18.
“It’s very hard,” said Melissa, who has also ridden in honor of several other fallen officers. “I could hardly walk by the time we got there. But it’s a very emotional journey. You wear these little bracelets that have their name on it … there are about 1,000 after we all meet and we all ride in together. And it’s really emotional. They have bagpipes. I used to love bagpipes. Now I hate them.”
Melissa said the bicyclists wear bracelets on the bike ride and present them to the fallen officer’s family once we reach the National Police Memorial Wall in D.C.
“This stands as a testament that their officer will never be forgotten,” said Melissa.
LIVING WITH THE MEMORY
The sadness of what happened remains fierce for Melissa.
“As soon as my feet hit the floor, it’s the first thing you think of every day and the last thing at night and for David to want to come in and be a part of this, that speaks well of him, too,” she said. “But we just trust God and the kids are doing great and we’re thankful we have each other and my in-laws, they are very supportive, and we still do our family things we always did.”
Melissa said her aim is to keep her late husband’s giving spirit alive. The foundation, she said, is one way to do that. She also sees that spirit in her children, especially her daughter.
“She has a little friend at school and she wants to spend her money to buy her friend things,” said Melissa. “So she’ll do anything to help others. Every time we have a book fair, she wants to buy that friend a book with her money.”
She said she is impressed with her children.
“They are so sweet and they’re strong to have gone through all this and not be mean and still love others and they have that soft heart and the will to change things and help people,” said Melissa, who said Buddy’s parents are wonderful grandparents to the kids.
She said she’s been blessed to have a supportive family and friends.
“I have been able to keep going due to God, family, and friends,” said Melissa. “Along with Buddy’s parents, my mom has been amazing as well. She has and continues to help out on numerous occasions. I am very blessed to have a great family support team.”
And the day will soon come when the family goes to Buddy’s grave on the fifth anniversary of his death. Again, they’ll watch the balloons rise to heaven.
“They (the kids) know they don’t actually go there,” said Melissa. “But sometimes we can see little — and it might sound crazy — but we can see little things in the clouds where you think, well, there’s a little hole there … but I think he sees them. There’s not much you can do, but that’s something you can visually do and take part in.”