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Helping Heroes

The 100 Club supports families of fallen game wardens.

By Tom Harvey

Two days after Game Warden Justin Hurst was killed March 17 by a suspected poacher, a soft-spoken man in a dark suit arrived at the Hurst home, asking to see Hurst’s widow, Amanda.

About 20 uniformed game wardens were in the yard and around the front porch, all there to support Amanda and her young son Kyle.

The caller was Rick Hartley, executive director of the 100 Club of Houston. Two days earlier, he’d been in northeast Texas, comforting the widow of a 29-year-old DPS trooper. The trooper had been working on Highway 59 near Marshall when his vehicle collided with an 18-wheeler and he was instantly killed. He left behind a pregnant widow and two small boys. Justin Hurst was killed on his 34th birthday, leaving a legacy of conservation achievement and generating a statewide outpouring of condolence and support.

Such tragic situations are a constant and typical part of Hartley’s job. Almost every week or two he visits a stricken family in similar circumstances. Nothing in particular prepared him for this career path, but several things seemed to point to it.

Hartley grew up on a farm near Brenham, but wound up in the big city working in Houston TV news. That role led the city police chief to recruit him as the first public information director for the Houston Police Department. He was later assistant director of the state prison system for five years.

As a youngster, he “never dreamed” he’d be doing this, but he’s since come to believe his purpose in life is to be a source of comfort for the families of slain peace officers.

“It’s very emotional work,” Hartley says, “but I’ve been doing it for 14 years. I believe this is what God wants me to do with my life. It’s my job to be there and be strong and do what we do.”

Hartley recalls his visit with Amanda and Hurst’s parents and brother as brief and formal.

“Amanda? She is a very strong lady,” he says. “She knew who we were, knew we were coming, was appreciative of our support. It was a very short visit, maybe 5 to 10 minutes. She was devastated and still in shock over what happened. Mainly we wanted her to know that we care about her and we love her, that there are 26,000 people in the 100 Club who care about her.”

Hartley presented Amanda with a check for $10,000, said he’d be back later to discuss the family’s needs in greater detail and quietly retired from the scene.

“We try within 48 hours to give the surviving spouse $10,000 to help with any immediate needs and expenses. When some of the trauma of the tragedy subsides, we’ll go back to see what the family needs are. Game wardens are no different from most people — they’ll usually have mortgages, they’ll have car debts, there’s usually a youngster or two who will need support for college or trade school. What we try to do is take the family totally out of debt, pay off the house and cars and provide for the youngsters’ financial needs, and we’re usually successful.”

The 100 Club began in 1953 when 100 people each contributed $100 to help the families of Houston police officers killed in the line of duty. Today the group focuses on 18 counties around greater Houston. A 31-member board of directors governs the organization, and directors often accompany Hartley to visit and comfort the families of slain officers.

In 2006, the board extended line of duty death benefits statewide to include Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens, Department of Public Safety troopers, Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents and Department of Criminal Justice officers killed anywhere in Texas.

There are about 15 other 100 Clubs across Texas doing similar work, typically focusing on a particular city or region. But the Houston group is the oldest and largest in the state and is believed to be the second oldest in the nation (one was formed in the Detroit area two years earlier).

In the 1970s, the group decided that while it would continue its original mission to support families of the fallen, it also made sense “to try to save a life rather than funding one that had been lost.” The 100 Club began providing equipment to Houston area law enforcement agencies who could not otherwise afford it, and southeast Texas game wardens have benefited considerably from the club’s generosity.

When 53 Texas game wardens entered New Orleans to aid Hurricane Katrina victims on August 30, 2005, two of the 50 boats they were hauling had come from the 100 Club. These were Air Ranger airboats worth about $55,000 each.

“The 100 Club equipment donations are for items that can’t be obtained through normal means, things that are not in our budget, and they have been incredibly significant,” says Lt. William Skeen, a longtime supervisor in TPWD’s Houston law enforcement office. “During our lean years, they provided essential equipment for our wardens to do the job and do it safely, items we would not have been able to buy if not for the 100 Club and its members.”

Skeen says the 100 Club has also provided navigational radar for night boat patrols, thermal imaging cameras, radios and Zodiac inflatable boats with outboard motors for use in flood rescues. Also, before TPWD set a policy making bullet-proof vests mandatory wear, the 100 Club was providing them to game wardens. All told, Texas game wardens have received donations totaling $369,455 since 1997.

The equipment donations are invaluable, yet Skeen emphasized how deeply enforcement officers appreciate the line of duty death benefit.

“It gives every officer I know some comfort that if you do go down in the line of duty, there are organizations like the 100 Club who will step in to take care of your family,” Skeen says. “It’s hard to put into words how important that is.”

Alongside the 100 Club, Operation Game Thief also provides survivor benefits to the families of game wardens killed in the line of duty, as well as equipment grants.

“The work of the two organizations is complementary, and both are needed,” Skeen says. “Equipment donations for the Houston 100 Club are for that region, so wardens in North Texas or other areas are getting equipment through OGT.”

Operation Game Thief is Texas’ wildlife Crime Stoppers program, offering rewards of up to $1,000 for information leading to arrest and conviction for a wildlife crime. The OGT toll-free hotline number is (800) 792-GAME.

Since its inception in 1981, OGT has fielded more than 28,000 phone tips, filed more than 9,000 cases with a 98 percent conviction rate, netted more than $1 million in fines and paid out rewards totaling more than $200,000. OGT is privately funded, entirely dependent on financial support from the public through the purchase of memberships and merchandise, donations, sponsorships and gifts.

For more information about the 100 Club, call (713) 952-0100 or visit <www.the100club.org>. To contact Operation Game Thief, call (512) 332-9880 or visit <www.ogttx.com>.

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