It began in Detroit. On an otherwise uneventful day in November, 1950, a young patrolman named Andreas Mellert was killed in the line of duty. The shooting wasn’t at the hands of a criminal, but by the angry father of a young man the 30-year-old Mellert had come to arrest. The patrolman left behind a young wife, Esther, who was pregnant with their first child.
A successful local businessman named William M. Packer felt compelled to visit the grieving widow. Packer owned the largest Pontiac dealership in the nation and was close friends with Detroit’s police commissioner. Packer’s heart broke upon meeting Esther. He got in touch with one hundred of his closest and most influential friends, asking for donations to help the family. By the time the widow, Esther Mellert, left the hospital with her newborn daughter a few weeks later, Packer had raised $7,800 for her. It paid off the family’s mortgage and established a scholarship for the little girl.
From that tragic death and the response of the hundred men, the idea for Detroit’s 100 Club was born: a group of civilians paying yearly “dues” into a fund for the sole purpose of assisting public safety officers. Today, in cities across the country, 100 Clubs offer financial assistance to the surviving spouses and families of police officers and firefighters who are injured or killed in the line of duty.
Amarillo’s 100 Club formed in 2006. It quickly grew beyond the city limits, however, expanding its mission to serve the top 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle – and all the city, county, state, and federal law enforcement officers, certified peace officers, and firefighters who faithfully serve these counties.
“They provide immediate assistance to us when we dial 9-1-1,” says Dirk Swope, executive director of the Texas Panhandle 100 Club. “We are their 9-1-1. We provide immediate assistance to them in a bad situation.” He explains that while traditional insurance policies and other benefits provide for families following these tragic events, bureaucracy and administrative details often delay these funds for weeks or months. “If they’re killed or seriously injured in the line of duty, it can take a long time for insurance and all the different stuff from the state to come through. That can leave the family financially burdened with a lot of different issues,” he says.
There is no red tape limiting the 100 Club. “The money we provide is a gift they can use for whatever they need it for,” says Swope. “Bills or groceries or whatever. We’re just there to help them out if they have gone through a traumatic period in their life. That is our job and our goal.”
It’s a goal the organization prays it will never reach. “We’re raising money for things we hope never happen,” Swope admits. But when the unthinkable occurs, the 100 Club springs into action.
In 2015, when Amarillo police officer Justin Scherlen was seriously injured during a collision while responding to a call, the 100 Club gave his family $5,000 in temporary disability support. Scherlen passed away from those injuries in early August of this year. The 100 Club took action again, giving his widow and the couple’s four children $10,000 with no strings attached, hoping the gift would ease the family’s financial situation.
Officer Scherlen’s family was the fourth to receive a death benefit from the non-profit, which also paid $10,000 to the families of Amarillo police officer Mark Simmons in 2008, Cactus volunteer firefighter Elias Jacquez in 2011, and Sgt. Paul Buckles of the Potter County Sheriff’s department in 2014.
Since 2015, the club has also provided disability benefits to Pampa officer Houston Gass, who was shot during a domestic disturbance call, and to Sgt. Craig Smith of the Potter County Sheriff’s Department, whose vehicle was struck by a tractor-trailer. Both men are recuperating from their injuries, and Club members keep in touch with the officers’ families in case additional funds are needed during the recovery process.
The 100 Club doesn’t limit its benefits to human first responders. Upon the training death of Bruno, a 5-year-old Dutch Shepherd in the APD’s K-9 unit, the organization donated $5,125 to pay for training and education for the dog’s replacement, along with the costs of a new harness and ballistic vest. Because police dogs come in different shapes and sizes, these expensive pieces of equipment must be customized to fit. “Canines in Texas are certified law enforcement peace officers,” explains Swope, who said he was shocked when he learned the costs related to police dogs like Bruno. Though expensive, the dogs provide a much greater value to the public. “They are vital to law enforcement. You put a dog in a bad situation and that dog is going to end that situation a lot more rapidly than a human might be able to.”
Beyond disability and death benefits, the 100 Club also uses its funds to assist local agencies with training, education and equipment. In recent years, it has helped equip a wild-land fire engine for the Fritch Fire Department and donated $10,000 toward a Jaws of Life® apparatus for Panhandle, Texas. Other gifts have provided defibrillators for the Potter County Sheriff’s Office, night-vision equipment for Randall County, and body armor for Donnelly County. Swope says these purchases fit perfectly within the non-profit’s mission. “We would rather spend money and take preventative actions to keep our law enforcement and firefighters safe, and make sure we don’t have to spend money on the bad stuff,” he says. “But on that bad day when something unexpected happens, we want to make sure we’re there to back them up – and back up the families.”
Swope’s commitment to the 100 Club is a personal one. His parents lived in the Walnut Creek area north of Pampa when a wildfire threatened their property in 2005. “We had firefighters fighting the fire from my mom and dad’s backyard,” he says. “It burned down our back fence and those firefighters saved our home. As a kid, you think police officers and firefighters have a neat job. It wasn’t until then that I realized how they put their lives on the line to protect our property and our home. It clicked that they do something special.”
Three years ago, on Jan. 15, 2013, another encounter with first responders deeply impacted Swope’s family. On that day, Dirk’s brother, A.J. Swope – a local musician and former television news reporter – was killed in a head-on collision between Amarillo and Dumas. “I became very good friends with the state trooper that went and talked to my mom and dad and told them my brother had died,” Swope says. “Sheriff Brian Thomas and several of his lieutenants and DPS officers went to tell my sister-in-law [A.J.’s wife, Wendi].” The compassion of those first responders during an extremely difficult time impressed Swope and continues to influence him today. “It’s a hard position to put someone into – to have to tell somebody that their son has died or to tell that wife that their husband has died. These guys are willing to run into burning buildings or gunfire to save your life. Then, after they do all that, they have the compassion to go speak to your family on a one-on-one basis and let them know what has happened. The amount of courage and compassion wrapped up in one package makes them special. We need to support them.”
Though Swope and the rest of the 100 Club hope to never give out another death benefit, they’re making plans now to increase it as soon as they’re able. “It’s $10,000 right now, but to increase it we need more membership,” he says. While similar clubs exist nationwide, he stresses that each one is independent. “We’re not tied to anyone. Any money that’s raised in the Texas Panhandle stays in the Texas Panhandle. All that money that went to help the Scherlens didn’t come from outside sources. It was put together by people who care about law enforcement and firefighters in the Texas Panhandle – to make sure they’re taken care of.”
The 100 Club of the Texas Panhandle has around 500 individual members committed to providing that support throughout the region. While the Club offers business and corporate memberships (see sidebar), individual memberships remain its driving force. A one-year membership is $100, or a lifetime individual membership is $1,000. With that membership comes two vehicle stickers which identify a driver as a member of the 100 Club. “When law enforcement and firefighters see that sticker on the back of your vehicle, they know you’ve got their back,” Swope says. “These guys are facing a lot on a regular basis. They need to know that the citizens they’re serving and protecting are backing them up when they’re in a bad situation. That’s our job as members.”
Recipients of 100 Club Death Benefits:
Amarillo police officer Mark Simmons (2008) Cactus volunteer firefighter Elias Jacquez (2011) Potter County Sgt. Paul A. Buckles (2014) Amarillo police officer Justin Scherlen (2016)
Recipients of 100 Club Disability Benefits:
Amarillo police officer Justin Scherlen (2015) Pampa police officer Houston Gass (2015) Potter County Sgt. Craig Smith (2016)
Joining the 100 Club:
While the 100 Club of the Texas Panhandle raises money through events like the annual Battle of the Badges, the Boots vs. Badges softball game, and a spring barbecue cook-off, the bulk of its funds come from individual and business memberships.
Annual Individual Membership: $100 Lifetime Individual Membership: $1,000 Annual Small Business Membership: $250 Small Business Lifetime Membership: $2,500 Annual Corporate Business Membership: $1,000 Corporate Business Lifetime Membership: $10,000
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.