A dark shadow was cast on the gloomy afternoon of Sat., Oct. 3, 2015. A dark yet still somehow beautiful shadow created by the blue uniforms of hundreds of police officers solemnly marching down Devine Street on their way to the funeral of a hometown hero. It was just three days prior, on Sept. 30, that Forest Acres had lost one of its brightest police officers, Greg Alia. What had become an all-too-regular news item in other cities was now a headline on Columbia’s television stations — the shooting of a police officer while he was serving the community and its citizens.
Protecting others was an innate characteristic of Greg. As a young boy, he always pulled for the sidekick, the protector, the one who was always helping to keep the hero safe. He was the Robin to Batman, the Tonto to the Lone Ranger. He had a desire to honor and protect others that extended beyond his service on the police force into every aspect of his life. On one recent trip with his family, Greg and Kassy, his wife, were traveling to visit Kassy’s parents. They stopped to have lunch outside at a restaurant and noticed a little boy being bullied. Before anyone could say a word, Greg had already intervened and stopped the bullies in their tracks.
On another occasion when Greg was in college and a friend was being accused of a wrong doing, the gossip was rampant and eventually got to Greg. Greg stood up for his friend, reminding all that their friend had never lied to them before so why would he be lying to them now. Almost instantly, after Greg’s gentle admonition, the gossip stopped. Kassy had never heard this story of her beloved husband until after his death, when friends gathered to talk of this special man. It had made an indelible mark on Greg’s friend and was a testament to his quiet heroism.
“Greg was not only a protector; he was also always committed to fairness and honesty,” says Kassy. “He was such an honorable man.” For Greg’s mother, Alexis, hearing the way Greg touched people’s lives has been a blessing during such a difficult time. “Anyone who knew my son will remember him for every reason I would want them to,” she says. “So many people have reached out to us to tell us the difference Greg made in their lives. He treated everyone with respect.”
Greg was a man of few words but his actions spoke louder than words. While he was outwardly quiet and seemingly introverted, his depth of soul kept unfolding over time. “To me, Greg was an onion,” says Kassy. “Every year, I learned something that surprised and impressed me about him. There were so many facets to him. Even in his passing. While I wouldn’t think you could learn more of a person after they were gone, I have.”
Kassy and Greg’s marriage was a partnership that grew stronger every year. Greg was up when Kassy was down, strong when she was weak, her biggest supporter and her sounding board. And the one with whom she had the most fun and found the most joy.
In this time of such grief, one thing immediately gave Kassy some peace. She has no regrets. She knows Greg knew how much she loved him, and she knew how much Greg loved her. “It was more than just a simple ‘I love you,’” says Kassy. “It was a thoughtful love. Greg was so patient and rarely got upset with me. The one thing that would bother him was if he didn’t think he was showing me that he loved me enough. If you take anything from this, it’s to love full-heartedly every day.”
Greg did, and his love of family and friends was evident in the life that he lived. That love has been sent back to the family through the outreach of the community. “Many people lose their children every day and their anguish and loss is great,” says Alexis. “But the support and encouragement and positive outpouring of love that has been shown has meant so much to us and to our children.”
The legacy that Greg leaves behind will never be forgotten and has helped to shape the lives of many who were close to him. For Robert Liner, a fellow Forest Acres Police Officer and friend to Greg, the loss is palpable. Robert was on the shift with Greg when the incident that ultimately took Greg’s life occurred. “I respected him so much as a police officer,” says Robert. “When it came to officer safety, he was one of the best in the department, which makes this all that much harder. He was so focused and wanted to do the best that he could.”
The best that he could –– not the best that others could. Greg wasn’t concerned about keeping up with others. “He was always striving to be better,” says Kassy.
Even in his hobbies, Greg was always looking to be better. As talented as he was, Greg didn’t talk about or show off his artistic abilities. It was only by happenstance that Robert even found out what a good artist Greg was. “One night shift, I pulled up beside him. It was 4 a.m. and he was drawing. I asked him what he was doing, and he said it was just a little hobby of his,” says Robert. “He had drawn a picture of our night shift team. I think his art work is how he expressed himself.”
While Robert and Greg were co-workers first, they quickly bonded over their similarities in life. Both had pregnant wives whose children were due about the same time. “Whenever we had free time, we would try to get together with our wives,” says Robert. “We would talk about the kids.”
Robert knows the future will now entail him talking with Sal, Greg’s son who is less than a year old, about his father. “I know the kind of dad Greg aspired to be,” adds Robert. “I want Sal to know as much about his dad as he can as it relates to his life in law enforcement. I want to tell him stories to let him know the kind of dad he had, so that he can have the peace of mind that his father was a hero.”
So is his mother. The day after Greg’s funeral, catastrophic floodwaters surged into the Forest Acres community, and Kassy made an immediate decision — to help in the flood efforts. “I had to be out there,” she says. “The community had just helped me through the most tragic time of my life, and I felt driven to do the same for them. How could I sit at home crying when so many people needed a hand?” For Kassy, giving back to others and taking moments of gratitude each day have been helpful for her. While she knows what she has lost, she is still so thankful for what she has.
One thing she has is a mission to promote a more positive message about police officers. Kassy and Greg had spoken often about the negative media attention police officers receive. The immediate outpouring from the community proved to Kassy that Greg’s sacrifice was appreciated and emboldened her to ensure that this respect is felt not only in Forest Acres, not only in Columbia, but also across the country. Kassy has started a campaign, #heroesinblue, which she is promoting through Facebook and hopes to grow into a non-profit which raises resources for families of fallen officers. Through the campaign, she is encouraging people to share pictures and posts of the heroes who have affected their lives.
Kassy’s goal is that people will celebrate police officers while they are living. “I encourage people, wherever they are, to take a moment to reach out and thank a police officer,” she says. “We need to let them know that if they are put in a position where they need to make a difficult decision, that we will support them.”
The letters Kassy has received from those who knew Greg to those who had never met him underscored to Kassy just how much people appreciate police officers. Her goal is to create a mechanism for supporting heroes and their families. Those heroes have indelibly impacted the Alia family. “We have another family now,” says Alexis. “A community of police officers who are now a part of our family. And that is very special.”
That special group of people helped carry Kassy through one of the most difficult days of her life — the day of Greg’s funeral. As she sat in the back of the limo with Sal, she looked up Gervais Street and all she could see were the police cars ahead. “I was assuming there would be a few cars,” Kassy says. “But when I looked up and saw all of the officers that came to honor Greg, it filled me with pride.” It’s that same pride that fills Greg’s mother when she thinks of her son. “He died doing what he loved,” she says. “We are so very proud of him.”
So is this community.