He'd served the force for a third of his life, but tragedy struck Cpl. Duke G. Aaron III in an instant.
One July day in 2004, Aaron, an officer with the Maryland Transportation Authority, had just returned to his patrol car after writing a traffic ticket when a speeding motorist — a Maryland man who later tested positive for cocaine — rammed his vehicle from behind.
By the end of the day, the burly Aaron, 29, of Pasadena, was dead.
It was the sort of news the family of every emergency responder dreads, and the two strangers who visited Jennifer Aaron, his widow, the next day knew there was nothing they could say to make it better.
But the $2,000 check they handed her helped a little. The One Hundred Club of Anne Arundel County had been planning ahead.
"We're an organization in waiting, hoping we'll never be called," its founding president, Charles W. "Pete" Shaeffer, says.
The One Hundred Club of Anne Arundel County — named because its dues are $100 per year — marks its 10th anniversary at a gala banquet Monday, April 26. It's one of a loose confederation of chapters around the nation whose aim is to keep plenty of funds on hand to help grieving families in case the firefighter, police officer or EMT they love is killed in the line of duty.
The families of such men and women usually qualify for government benefits, but it can take months or years for the funds to arrive — small comfort to people in such a state of shock that they can be unprepared to face the mortgage, utility and tuition bills that may pile up.
"People assume that when [an emergency worker] is killed, the family gets plenty of money, but it can take a while," says Cookie Kiser of Pasadena, a member. "And the ones who get killed are usually the people working on the street [and] living paycheck to paycheck. We stay ready to help them right away."
A second chance
No one knows quite why Louis "Al" Brandt made it his mission to start a One Hundred Club chapter, any more than they knew what drove this Anne Arundel bundle of energy throughout his 78 years.
A construction worker and postal clerk who eventually dealt in Rolls Royces, Oldsmobiles and recreational vehicles, Brandt, of Hanover and Glen Burnie, was married to the former Marilyn Share for 47 years and a Kiwanis Club member for 52. He never missed a meeting.
"Al only understood one speed in life, and that was full speed ahead," said the Rev. Brian Swartwood at Brandt's funeral three years ago.
His son, Barry Brandt, recalls a family story. During the 1950s, Al Brandt saw some county firefighters who had packed themselves in ice struggling to save a burning grocery store.
From then on, he saw emergency workers as underappreciated. He and his brother, Wilbur, started the Anne Arundel Alarmers, a volunteer group that showed up at two-alarm fires or worse, handing the firefighters food and drinks. It's still in operation.
He'd also heard of the dozens of One Hundred Clubs around America, including the first one, in Detroit, which had actually put the children of slain officers through college.
Surprising doctors when he survived a severe aneurysm in 1998, the elder Brandt became more single-minded than ever. "We have to start the club," Barry Brandt recalls him saying. Al Brandt "felt God spared him for that reason."
He rounded up some friends — Henry L. Hein, chairman of the board of the Bank of Glen Burnie, Amtrak executive Lee Griffith and more — and they talked the idea up to everyone they knew.
Most who signed on had no tie to emergency responders other than admiration for their work.
"This is a group of people who have little background with emergency services and in many cases no contact with them," says Battalion Chief Matt Tobia, an 18-year veteran of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. "They stay prepared on our behalf. That's why [county fire chief Robert] Ray tells us, ‘Whatever the One Hundred Club needs, you make it happen.' "
When the chapter first started in 1999, it was a far cry from ones in Detroit, Chicago and New Jersey with endowments in the millions. But making upwards of $25,000 a year at banquets, it has accumulated about $430,000. It's still the only one in Maryland.
At last week's meeting, Brandt's widow, Marilyn, 74, updated attendees on pending speakers. Barry Brandt, 42, the club president, talked ticket sales, and his son, Matthew Brandt, 10, followed the action from the back of the room.
"We all become a working family," Barry says, not of his own extended family but of the club's membership, now 180 strong.
Officer of the year
Cpl. Duke Aaron III is one of the few killed while serving the county since the club began, and one of 30 since the county started keeping track decades ago. The previous such fatality was in the mid-1970s.
A 10-year veteran, he was considered a rising star when Albert Antonelli of Queenstown rear-ended his parked police car at more than 70 mph.
Aaron had been named officer of the year at the Bay Bridge three consecutive years.
At a standing-room-only memorial service that week, colleagues recalled his fundamentally shy manner, his willingness to play a joke, his day-to-day dedication.
The day after the tragedy, two club members handed Jennifer Aaron a check they knew would help, but that still felt grossly inadequate. Ken Dunshee and Rod Devilbiss Jr. asked permisson for the club to set up a fund in her husband's name.
At the banquet Monday, the club will, as always, award the Duke G. Aaron III Memorial Scholarship — $5,000 toward furthering the professional education of an Anne Arundel emergency responder — not to mention a plaque to the annual winner of the "Unsung Hero Award."
The One Hundred Club is also trying to set aside money to be able to help any of its nine participating service agencies buy equipment they wouldn't otherwise get.
"This way, we don't just show up when a life has been lost, but we can contribute to preventing loss of life before it happens," says vice president Charlie Parks, a retired Anne Arundel deputy fire chief.
When 14 club members met at one of Kiser's eateries, Cookie's Bay Meadow Grill in Glen Burnie, to work out last-minute details last week, they were as effective and funny as Aaron himself.
Parks plowed through agenda items at a brisk clip: programs (70 pages), tickets (selling briskly), silent auction ( AirTran just came through with two free round-trip tickets), plaques (on order).
Joe Jordan, an Anne Arundel County police captain who sits in on every meeting, checked off logistical details. After months of preparation, everything seemed on track.
No one cared that Kiser's Shih Tzu, Dinky, scampered through the place, sniffing shoes.
The raffle prize will be a huge jar of candy, Kiser said. She got them in an after- Easter sale.
Shaeffer had been hoping for a Wii set.
"Just say they're jellybeans Ronald Reagan didn't eat," he advised.
They swapped news on absent members, posed for pictures, and lingered a while. They were finished in 45 minutes.
Shaeffer is happy the club's endowment has grown, but says it's still not nearly enough. "If you have to take care of someone's children, that could go quickly," he says.
Jennifer Aaron, Duke Aaron's widow, has been reluctant to discuss the matter publicly and could not be reached for comment.
But Linda Aaron of Pasadena, the late officer's mother, says she and her daughter, Cindy Zimmerman, are always invited to the One Hundred Club banquet and have "had the honor of presenting" the scholarship award several times. The MTA always sends an officer to escort them.
"Six years later, it's still very difficult" to have lost a son, she says — doubly so in July, which was also her son's birthday — but the banquet is "always a very uplifting experience., It's welcome emotional and moral support to know there are so many people who remember what our son did — many of whom didn't even know him personally — and that they take care not only of police officers, but of firefighters, too."
The One Hundred Club continues to look forward. To a calamity they all pray never happens. To the day the endowment tops $1 million. To the banquet at Michael's Eighth Avenue, where a police-and-fire honor guard will present colors, "special ops" squad cars will be on display, the chiefs of all nine service agencies will be on hand in dress attire, and Scott McRoy, who survived the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York, will deliver the keynote address.
Organizers expect about 350 people. Walk-ins are welcome, Parks says.
But the spotlight will be on the scholarship winner (as yet unannounced) and the nine nominees for the Al Brandt Unsung Hero Award, many of whom are carrying on in the Aaron tradition of serving the public at great risk and for little thanks: Josef Love of the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Department, who keeps databases on domestic violence; Sgt. Daniel Rodriguez of the Anne Arundel County Police, the county's senior SWAT sergeant; Cpl. Melissa Scarborough of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who teaches emergency workers the seamanship that could save lives, and more.
Their families hope always to be able to welcome them home, but should the unthinkable happen, Jordan says, it's good to know the One Hundred Club is out there doing what they do. "God forbid you'll ever need those funds," he says. "But it's a comfort to know they're there."
If you go
The One Hundred Club of Anne Arundel County's 10
annual fundraising banquet
6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, April 26
Michael's Eighth Avenue, 7220 Greyburn Drive, Glen Burnie
$65 per person
410-437-3139 or 410-431-7192