Tonya McGary said the death of her police-officer son at age 26 doesn’t get any easier, but he has “definitely left a legacy” in Searcy and Conway.
McGary, who grew up in Searcy, had been a Conway police officer for 1 1/2 years when he was killed. He was standing in the intersection of Dave Ward Drive and Exchange Avenue in Conway, directing traffic after an accident on Jan. 31, 2013.
An impaired driver came through the intersection and hit him. McGary died the next day, Feb. 1.
“You don’t ever get over it; you just learn to deal with it. We miss him terribly,” Tonya said.
She said her son lives on through the Officer Will McGary Memorial Foundation, which was formed almost immediately after his death to help youth and law enforcement. It provides monetary awards for high school seniors in Faulkner and White counties and equipment and support for police officers in Searcy and Conway.
“It’s to change lives and save lives in central Arkansas,” Tonya said.
The foundation will host its seventh annual car show, its biggest fundraiser, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sept. 28 at a new venue, during the Get Down Downtown festival, a Main Street Searcy event. The cars will be parked at Spring and Pleasure streets. The rain date for the car show is Oct. 5.
The money raised will go into the foundation fund. In addition to equipment,
such as body cameras for the Searcy Police Department, and supplies, such as an ice machine for the Conway Police Department, the foundation sponsors the Will McGary Memorial Award for high school seniors in White and Faulkner counties. To date, 14 high school seniors have received the monetary award, Tonya said.
Tonya said the car show was the idea of Jim Pinner, a member of Valley Baptist Church. He suggested the car show as a benefit before the foundation was created. McGary grew up in the church, where Tonya and her husband and Will’s father, Harold, are members.
Pinner said he had just started attending the church when McGary was killed — he didn’t know the officer or his parents at the time. A fundraiser was held for the family, and it raised only a few thousand dollars.
“I thought, ‘Hold it.’ We could do a car show, go out and get donations while it’s still fresh on everybody’s mind and maybe get something that would work,” Pinner said.
“I’ve always been a car guy,” he said, adding that he previously was in the Searcy Corvette Club. Pinner said he asked the Valley Baptist Church’s pastor, James Hays, if the event could be hosted at the church.
“He said, ‘Absolutely; whatever we can do, we’ll do it,’” Pinner said.
The event has 90 or more cars on display, including emergency-response vehicles, which do not pay the entry fee. But Pinner would like to see more involvement.
“I know Conway is a car town; we have very little support from Conway. And I know what’s there; I know a lot of the car guys over there,” he said.
Robbi Casey, a member of the foundation board, coordinates the car show. She and Tanya are both nurses at Unity Health in Searcy.
Casey said up until this year, the car show has been at Valley Baptist Church.
“This will be our first year that we’ve changed venues,” she said. “We’re going to be joining the festival for more exposure. It’s our first joint venture with Main Street Searcy. They welcomed us very warmly, and we’re quite proud of that.”
Casey said registration is $20. They will be parked on Pleasure Street near the Searcy library. Participats may register cars from 8-9 a.m.; judging is from 10-11. A Best of Show Award is given, as well as a People’s Choice Award. Attendees can purchase tokens to vote for their favorite car by dropping the tokens into a bucket designated for each car. Vendors will sell food and a limited number of car show/foundation T-shirts will be for sale. More information is available at www.willmcgaryfoundation.org.
Pinner said with the exception of a rainout last year, there haven’t been fewer than 90 cars in the show. However, Pinner said Conway car enthusiasts don’t participate, and he’d like to see that change.
“I know Conway is a car town,” he said.
Casey said another fundraiser during the car show will be the sale of a children’s book she wrote and her niece, Jackie Casey of Arizona, illustrated, to benefit the foundation.
The story, Chief and the Law of the Land is based on Will and his dog, Gunner, whose name was changed to Chief for the book.
Casey said the story explains what law enforcement does and that “you can’t tell a good or bad person from looking at them …. Chief is hidden through the book,” and it includes Will’s photo and a dedication.
Casey said she has had 100 books printed to sell at the car show, but the foundation is looking for a sponsor to print more.
“I think that would be a good money-maker for the foundation,” she said. A few kids T-shirts depicting the book characters will be for sale, too.
“Absolutely 100 percent of every penny we make will go back to the foundation,” Casey said.
McGary also was an organ donor, his heart and kidneys went to three separate recipients. Casey said Aurora, the Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency, has a booth at the event each year to educate the public about organ donation.
Tonya said from the beginning, her family wanted to help other police officers.
“We wanted to also do something for law enforcement when we saw the impact of his loss on his blue family, and knowing as a nurse what Will was seeing as an officer, we wanted to do something to help families heal.”
The foundation paid for the officer working with McGary the night he was hit to attend a debriefing, crisis program in Virginia, as well as other officers at later times.
The officer who was working with Will the night he was hit started a similar program, the Arkansas Law Enfocement Assistance Program, which is separate from the memorial foundation, Tonya said.
The Officer Will McGary Memorial Foundation provided the funding and still is a major sponsor. It is has been held the past three summers in Conway and has helped about 70 officers, Casey said.
Conway Police Chief Jody Spradlin was assistant chief when McGary was killed.
“Will was directing traffic at an accident scene; he was basically protecting that,” Spradlin said. “He did everything right; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
A man, who was found to be impaired because of prescription drugs, “blew through all of it,” Spradlin said. It was hard on the close-knit department, Spradlin said.
Officer Brandon Huff joined the Conway Police Department at the same time as McGary, June 2011, and has attended a couple of the car shows.
Huff said he and McGary became fast friends.
“He was always a cut-up,” Huff said. “Driving back and forth from the [police] academy, we’d always joke around, find funny videos to watch. He was real nice, a fun-to-be-around guy.”
Huff said McGary was “real big into baseball” and played at Searcy High School, and they talked about hunting and fishing.
Huff said they also talked about “the older guys in the department” who had been there 20-plus years. “We said maybe that’ll be us someday. We had the future in front of us,” Huff said.
He said it was gut-wrenching to get the call that night that McGary had been severely injured.
Huff said the Officer Will McGary Memorial Foundation is a positive response from a sad situation.
“I think it’s a great thing; I think it’s extremely positive. It doesn’t let people forget about Will and the tragedy that happened. And things they have done for the department — it’s been amazing,” Huff said.
Spradlin credited McGary’s parents with continuing his legacy.
“Will’s parents, Harold and Tonya, have been outstanding with this – ‘Yeah, this happened, but the Lord had a plan …,” Spradlin said.
Tonya said Will “was just so humble, and he loved people.” Although he wouldn’t have wanted the attention, she said her son always had a desire to be a role model for young people and help law enforcement.
That’s why the Officer Will McGary Memorial Foundation is the perfect way to honor him: “It’s continuing a legacy,” she said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-5671 or email@example.com.