By Rebecca Croomes
Charles Albert Poland Jr.’s funeral was so well attended, it had to be moved to an event center in a neighboring town.
The school bus driver from Newton was killed Jan. 29 when a man identified as Jimmy Lee Dykes boarded Poland’s bus with a gun and demanded that two children get off with him. Poland tried to stop Dykes, but was shot in the attempt and later died at a hospital. Dykes only managed to kidnap one child, whom he kept hostage in an underground bunker behind his home for the next seven days until his death Monday afternoon at the hands of law enforcement.
While there is rejoicing over the child’s safe return to his family, there is also great sorrow over the loss of the man who first tried to rescue him.
“He was just a good Christian man,” said Spirit of Athens director Trisha Black.
Black grew up in Newton, approximately eight miles west of Midland City. Her backyard abutted the Poland’s house. Her mom and Charles were friends; Trisha and the oldest Poland boy were in the same graduating class in high school.
“Every time he called (my mom) he always asked about me and my sister,” Black said.
When news started to spread of the bizarre events in Midland City that day, Trisha heard the name Poland and instantly knew whom people were talking about.
He began driving a school bus only three years ago.
Before the names of the victims were released here in Athens and around the world, Black took to the Internet to find her childhood friends to learn the truth. In a city as small as Newton, the word spreads fast.
“You’re in disbelief that something like that could happen to someone you know,” Black said.
Stranger still, Black said, Poland knew the gunman, Dykes; a man who neighbors say was a menace. She said Poland knew Dykes and had even helped him financially and spent time with him.
Now both men are dead.
Poland was hailed a hero at his memorial service in Ozark. Media outlets from around the country flocked to witness the end to what could be the saddest chapter of the entire standoff.
Black’s mother attended and spoke to Poland’s wife.
“There’s not much you can do or say when something like that happens,” Trisha said. “Just that one act of sacrifice — he’s a hero.”
Black said what touched people was the family’s request to give donations to autism research in lieu of flowers — the Poland’s have an autistic grandson and the hostage has a type of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome — it was a grand gesture from a family that defined humility, according to Black.
“I’m not sure, if he had survived, if he would want people to call him (a hero),” Black said. “He probably started driving that bus just to have something to do.”
In response to the incident, Limestone County Superintendent Tom Sisk said he met with transportation safety manager Darryl Adams, who then met with drivers and concerned groups.
“We do take transportation safety very seriously,” Sisk said.
Adams sent out a pre-recorded message to all bus drivers on record reminding them of the safety protocol. Sisk said drivers were reminded how to handle situations when suspicious adults are at a pick-up or drop-off site, and how to prevent one from boarding the bus.
Sisk said there was also an updated memo coming out to drivers later this week.