DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Many people came to know Charles “Chuck” Poland because of a one-minute encounter on a school bus with a man who had a gun and demanded children as hostages five years ago.
His widow Jan wants people to know the man she called her husband for 43 years, three months and 27 days.
He is the school bus driver who bought Little Debbie cakes for the kids on his bus, or sweet-talked Jan into baking some goodies to give to the children. He is the man who never raised his voice to the students, but found creative ways to bring them into compliance, such as slowing the bus to a crawl after school on the route home.
He is the man who realized the importance of calling the children by name and offering an encouraging word.
“He would come home some days and tell me ‘Some of these kids on my route . I’m the first face they see that day. If I can say just a little something encouraging, maybe I can make their day a little better,’” Jan Poland said.
It bothered him greatly when he had to notify school personnel about behavior issues on his bus.
So, yes, Jan Poland was shocked and her life was turned upside down five years ago when the man with the gun shot and killed her husband.
Numb. Devastated. But Jan Poland wasn’t surprised her husband gave his life to protect children on his school bus.
“Of course everybody said he was a hero,” she said during a recent interview with the Dothan Eagle. “To me, I never really saw it that way. It was just Chuck being who he was.”
On Jan. 29, 2013, Jimmy Lee Dykes boarded Poland’s bus with a gun and demanded children to use as hostages. Poland resisted and Dykes shot him to death before grabbing a 5-year-old boy and taking him into an underground bunker.
The drama ended five days later when FBI agents stormed the bunker and shot Dykes to death. The boy wasn’t injured and returned to school in Midland City after a break. Poland was widely recognized for preventing Dykes from taking other children.
It didn’t take long for Chuck Poland to be Jan’s hero. They were engaged three weeks after they met.
Since then, the Chuck Poland Jan knew wouldn’t have hesitated to protect the children on his bus. When the man with the gun demanded two children as hostages, witnesses indicated Poland stepped in front of the man and said “I can’t let you do that.”
The acclaim for Chuck Poland’s act came in from all over the country for about a year after the incident. Jan was appreciative, but struggled with the loss.
A woman whose child was one of the 22 on the school bus that day attended Poland’s funeral. She wept as she hugged Jan.
“My child is alive today because of what your husband did,” Jan recalls her saying.
Experts say family members who lose a loved one unexpectedly have an especially difficult time coping.
“You start out living second by second, then minute by minute, then hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year,” said Shelly Linderman, who assists the families of homicide victims at the Wiregrass Angel House.
Five years later, Jan Poland says she has recently graduated to hour by hour.
The lifetime of memories can be soothing and painful at the same time. It can be something as simple as passing Chuck’s favorite food at the grocery store and reaching for it to put it in the buggy. It can be alone time in her vegetable garden speaking to God. It can be sunrises and sunsets.
“I’ve learned to be content with the discontentment over my loss,” she said.