April 23 marked the "End of Watch" for Bill Hart.
Friends, family members and comrades filled Paonia Friends Church Saturday to pay their respects to Hart, a husband, father, Army veteran, Paonia police officer and Volunteer Fire Department member. Hart lost his battle with lung cancer on April 23 at the age of 45.
Speakers remembered Hart as a devoted husband and dad, a true friend, and a man dedicated to a life of service to all. "He's the kind of guy who'd drop all to take care of his friends," said Pastor Gaylen Kinser. Second only to his love for family and Christ was his love of music, said Pastor Kinser. He played guitar and knew all the lyrics to the best rock 'n' roll songs. He also played video games with a passion.
Almost half of those in attendance were in law enforcement, first responders, and active and past members of the military. Blake Kinser, an EMT, Hart's fellow parishioner at Friends Church, and close friend, bravely made a joke about law enforcement officers. It was a celebration, after all. "God gave firefighters to this earth to give the police a hero," said Kinser. "Bill was both. Bill hit the top-shelf status of what it means to be a hero."
He'd argue with that, said Kinser, "But he is."
Hart was destined to a life of service. Born in 1971 at Beale Air Force Base, he enlisted in the U.S. Army out of high school and served throughout the world, including in China, South Korea, Cyprus, and in Desert Storm.
His uniforms, firefighting jacket and SCBA gear were displayed as a reminder of his dedication to helping others.
"He had a deep desire to join law enforcement," said Pastor Kinser. In 2001 Hart was sworn in as an officer of the Paonia Police Department. Police Chief Neil Ferguson called Hart a friend, comrade, and a Brother in Blue, and said Hart taught him what it meant to be an officer and a friend.
Hart left Paonia briefly to work for the Gunnison Sheriff's Department, but was convinced to come back.
The only audience member to speak recalled how her husband had a traumatic brain injury and Hart would respond to calls to their house. "He understood," she said, and treated her husband "with kindness and understanding."
Friends described Hart as a fiercely devoted husband to wife Samira, and father of their three children. Son Alex Hart said he recently joined the U.S. Air Force. He plans to follow his dad's footsteps and enter into law enforcement. When he said he'd joined the Air Force, his dad asked if he was crazy before telling him, "Just be the best that you can be."
"He didn't give trust easily, but when he did, he did it fully," said Paonia firefighter Jason Lage. He opened his comments with an anonymous quote: "Here's to the nights that turn into mornings and the friends that turn into family."
They did everything together, said Lage, who joined the fire department because of Hart. Together we fought fires, and together we fought hordes and hordes of zombies."
Alex Hart said his dad believed that his biggest job was to raise his son and two daughters, and to give him the tools to be an even better father that he was. "Holy cow, those are some big freaking shoes to wear," he said. "If I'm half as good I will be an amazing dad. He had so much love to give."
A military flag folding ceremony was held, and Samira Hart was presented the flag on behalf of the U.S. Army and in appreciation and honor of his service.
Police Chief Ferguson put out a final radio dispatch, last call to Officer PD3, Hart's badge number on the Paonia Police Department. There was silence.
A voice from Delta County Dispatch came over the radio. "Officer Hart is out of service," came the voice. "Officer PD3 is gone but not forgotten. He will remain in our hearts forever."