- Associated Press - Saturday, June 7, 2014

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - James Hodges beamed recounting how he met Roanoke police Officer Gayle Combs, the man who connected him with his past.

“He is my guardian angel. I really believe that,” Hodges said with a quiver of emotion. “He’s a good, good human being, besides being a fantastic police officer. I’m real proud to know him and call him a friend.”

Rewind six weeks, and the two didn’t even know each other. Never met once.

That changed on a hot day in April when 93-year-old Hodges was driving to lunch at the Hershberger Road K&W; Cafeteria with his wife, Myra.

All of a sudden, his 1992 Cadillac sedan conked out.

Hodges made it to the intersection of Hershberger and Florist roads in northwest Roanoke, where the car shut off.

“I was flabbergasted,” Hodges said. “The car’s electrically operated. I couldn’t get the doors open, I couldn’t blow the horn, the lights, nothing. And I looked up, and here comes Gayle in a police car.”

Combs was driving to work and noticed Hodges waving at him. The officer pulled over and helped Hodges and his wife out of the car.

“I’d probably still be sitting out there if it weren’t for him,” Hodges said.

Another officer came and helped Combs push the car out of the street. Combs asked if he could take Myra Hodges home so she wouldn’t have to wait in the heat.

Later that afternoon, Combs stopped by the couple’s house to find out if they got home all right.

“He’s a fine police officer,” said Myra Hodges, 88.

A couple of days later, James Hodges phoned the police department to “basically brag on me,” Combs said. He reached Capt. Monti Lee, where it came up in conversation that Hodges was related to Patrolman T.A. Mabry.

Mabry, as Hodges learned in his childhood, was the first Roanoke police officer killed in the line of duty. He died in 1892, 29 years before he could see his grandson born.

Mabry died after serving an arrest warrant “on a notorious saloon keeper” who hit him on the back of the head with a brick, according to the department’s history. The suspect was tracked from Roanoke to Lynchburg to Thaxton, brought back to Roanoke and “hung on the courthouse lawn the following day.”

There’s a plaque in the police department’s front lobby honoring Mabry and the 14 others who have died in Roanoke’s line of duty. It asks “God to forgive those responsible for this loss.”

Hodges said he’d known for many years that the plaque hung in the police department. He’d always wanted to see it.

On May 28, Combs and police brass made that happen. Hodges and his wife toured the police department, met the agency’s chiefs - “a lot of nice guys,” Hodges said - and saw the plaque with his grandfather’s name on it.

“I’d never had the opportunity to come down here to see that plaque,” Hodges said. “That’ll be something I can treasure in my memory.”

Combs was humble about the occasion and his role in it. A 10-year veteran of the force, he repeated many times that he was just doing his job.

He said if anything, he’s honored to meet Hodges, a World War II veteran who earned a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge.

Hodges said he was surprised by the interest shown in his story by a newspaper reporter and photographer.

“I am not used to all this,” he said.

The Hodgeses and Combs were set to tour Roanoke’s municipal vehicle garage - where James Hodges retired from - and later get a hamburger lunch.

“He said he didn’t want anything fancy,” Combs said.

___

Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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