A memorial highway dedication and ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 17 will celebrate the life of Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Warden Justin Hurst, who gave the ultimate sacrifice while in service to his community in 2007.
Hurst was killed following the pursuit of a man suspected of illegal hunting who later fired on law enforcement officers. Hurst passed away on March 17, 2007, which was his 34th birthday, and left behind a wife and four-month-old son.
Wharton County’s 100 Club, which provides a $100,000 death benefit to the families of fallen law enforcement officers, helped fund the signs for the Justin Hurst Memorial Highway. Emergency Management Coordinator Andy Kirkland, who sits on the 100 Club’s board of directors, said the Hurst Memorial Highway will span from SH 71 at the Wharton-Matagorda county line up to El Campo by the Civic Center.
The sign unveiling starts at 10 a.m. at SH 71 at Loop 2765, to be followed by a ceremony for Hurst at 10:30 a.m. at the El Campo Civic Center, 2350 North Mechanic Street.
Kirkland said Wharton County has an especially strong 100 Club that supports local law enforcement with equipment, scholarships and aid for families left behind, but he said that what they do is small when compared to the danger that law enforcement face daily.
“Every day they go out and they put that badge on and go out and do their jobs,” Kirkland said. “It’s a very one-sided thing. I mean they can give up their life in what they’re doing to protect us and all we’re doing is raising some money and putting up some signs. I mean that’s not a very fair trade.”
Kirkland said Hurst’s death while in the line of duty brought to light that not all law enforcement agencies in Wharton County were being supported with the life insurance benefit, an oversight that was remedied.
“Now, when Justin got killed in 2007, we did not cover the game wardens and we did not realize that,” Kirkland said. “So, we actually paid that $100,000 from our members. Our members paid that.”
“It was quite a deal. We found out then, it wasn’t just the game wardens, but we had TABC agents that weren’t covered. We had LCRA Rangers that weren’t covered. Our Texas Ranger was not covered. So, now, we’re sure that we have everybody listed on that insurance.”
Kirkland said the Harris County 100 Club, the Wharton County Sheriff’s Office and other groups contributed to Hurst’s cause and in making the memorial highway a reality. He said Hurst’s widow, Amanda, also worked with the state legislature for better laws to support the families left behind by a fallen officer.
“Amanda herself actually went before the State Legislature because of things like health insurance shortcomings for her and her son,” Kirkland said. “There’s a lot of changes that have been made since then so that the families of fallen officers are better taken care of.”
Kirkland said the ceremony on Oct. 17 will be touching and emotional but said he is proud of Wharton County and the 100 Club, which started in 1978, for its efforts on behalf of law enforcement that now go beyond the life insurance benefit to include equipment and scholarships.
“It’s grown since then to where we don’t just furnish the $100,000 life insurance but we also buy equipment that they need, bulletproof vests, optics, all these different types of things like that as well as provide scholarships.”
“We’ve provided over $150,000 in equipment and scholarships since 1978.”
Kirkland said the scholarships often support future law enforcement officers who come back to the area to serve.
“The scholarships I am really proud of,” Kirkland said. “There’s a junior college here in Wharton that has a law enforcement academy and we will put people through the school there and in most cases, they’re coming right back into Wharton County to go to work.”
Kirkland said the county has been fortunate not to have had another officer lose his or her life in the line of duty but recognizes that law enforcement faces imminent danger every day.
“You think about the deputies and the troopers that are by themselves out in the car making a traffic stop on a dirt road somewhere and you don’t know what it is you’re getting into,” Kirkland said. “It’s a tough job.”
Other areas who are starting up their own 100 clubs have come to Wharton County, Kirkland said, to find out how their club is so successful.
“We’re just very, very proud,” he said. “Wharton County, for a county of 41,000 people, really gives great support countywide for law enforcement. And the law enforcement people that we have here appreciate it a whole lot.”
Kirkland said his unique position as emergency management coordinator and as part of the Wharton County 100 Club lets him see the many facets of the job of law enforcement officers.
“Being in emergency management, I get to work both ends of it,” he said. “I work side by side with law enforcement and then I’m also on the board (of the 100 Club), so I get to sit and watch. It’s tough being a law enforcement officer right now. Our women and men do just a hell of a job. It’s just awfully tough.”
He said the secret to the success of the 100 Club and seeing efforts like the Justin Hurst Memorial Highway come to fruition simply comes down to people caring about the law enforcement men and women who protect their community.
“It’s just because we’ve got a bunch of people who care,” Kirkland said.