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'Your hurt is our hurt:' A look at Deputy Robert Kunze's celebration of life

Published: Sep. 21, 2018 at 6:41 PM CDT
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Blue lights cast a glow on the stage of Central Community Church. Men and women in badges and blue pour in the doors, nodding to one another, shaking hands and giving hugs. Hundreds situate themselves in the sanctuary that is quieter than it seems it should be.

Many cast glances at the photo resting on the stage and the large empty section front and center. The photo shows Deputy Robert Kenneth Kunze III in his Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office uniform with an American Flag back drop. Large screens play photo slideshows of Deputy Kunze and his family.

The Honor Guard lines the center aisle. The group responds to it's first command and the crowd goes still and silent.

The doors open and a sea of light blue enters.

THE INTRODUCTION

It wasn't even the full staff of the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office as it's a job that can't be left uncovered. Yet the large, empty pews in the front and center were slowly filled shoulder to shoulder with deputies and their families, led by Sheriff Jeff Easter and his wife.

The crowd is standing at this point and it includes city and county leaders, state representatives and even national legislators. But the most common sight in the crowd is a badge from some agency in Kansas or the United States. The law enforcement support is evident.

The family enters and a detective begins signing "Amazing Grace" on stage, but it's a law enforcement version and the first sign of tears in the crowd.

Senior Pastor Bob Beckler enters and his voice echoes across the auditorium.

"Your hurt is our hurt," he says to every person in law enforcement in the room. He addresses Deputy Kunze's wife, Kat, and daughter saying, "There is no making sense of that that is senseless."

Beckler says we must not remember how Deputy Kunze lost his life, but rather, how he gave it. He calls Deputy Kunze a hero, a word that would be repeated many times over the course of the two hour service.

"Robert died so that others could live," Beckler said.

At that, he asked all first responders in the crowd to stand.

"Never forget, people depend on you," Beckler said as the crowd applauded. "We need you."

DEPUTY ROBERT KUNZE'S LIFE

Dignity Celebrant Cyndi Pearce took the stage next to begin telling the crowd about Kunze's life. She began at the very beginning.

Bob and Dolly Kunze lived in their wooden home that Dolly painted mint green. It had a privacy fence in front and another fence in back. A large maple tree sat on the property and a sandbox for their two daughters.

On Monday, March 7, 1977, the Kunze's would welcome a third child, born at home. It was Robert.

"Robert was a card from the start," Pearce said.

She explained how Robert learned way too early how to get into his dad's things. Sometimes it was dad's beer cans he left on the floor. A sip as a child would then lead to brewing his own beer as an adult. Pearce said she thought there was some sort of joke about that ready for Kunze's retirement.

But back to his childhood.

Pearce told a story of Robert as a child and it was one she said didn't need pictures, with a chuckle. She said Robert would put on his dad's boots and his shirt but the diaper was optional. The crowd giggled.

The Kunze family moved to Haysville and Robert attended Haysville Elementary. But Dolly quickly wanted to move again and the family bought 20 acres in Rose Hill where they would grow their own food, including meat, fruit, vegetables and more. There was no sugar allowed in the house so Pearce said the kids got really excited when Halloween came around.

As Robert grew up, Pearce said his favorite toy was toy guns so he could play cop. His grandfather was a deputy in the reserves and Robert wanted to be just like him.

Christmas meant a live tree in the home each year covered with ornaments the three kids made. The family would go to Grandma's in Marshall, MO where Pearce said presents had to be opened on Christmas Eve because Grandma couldn't wait for Christmas Day.

But Christmas was nothing compared to Robert and Dolly's favorite holiday - Independence Day. Pearce said Robert loved his fireworks and the family always had a ton of fireworks. Sometimes, Robert would take apart fireworks and put them back together his way (not recommended).

When there were dandelions in the yard, Dolly would "hire" the kids to pick them. She would offer one half of a penny per dandelion so she knew the kids would never just pick one.

But as Robert got older, he started doing lawn care in the summers and then worked at O'Reilly Auto Parts to satisfy his love of cars. His first was a white Plymouth Valore.

Robert graduated Rose Hill High School in 1995 and wanted to take a year off. But Dolly wasn't having that so Robert went to Garden City Community College for two years, where he immediately got a job with campus security. It was his first "real" badge.

From there, it was Washburn University where Robert would not only leave with a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice, but he would also leave with a woman by his side. Her name is Kathleen.

As Pearce tells it, Kathleen worked at the cafeteria and had her eye on Robert. Her boss gave Robert her number without knowing Robert had his eye on Kathleen as well.

It was a landline and Kathleen's dad answered with a deep, "hello?" but it didn't scare Robert. For their first date, he accompanied Kathleen and her friend to play pool. They talked all night. Their second date was mini golf and the rest is history.

That is, until they got engaged. As Pearce tells it, Robert was a jokester from the start and often played jokes on Kathleen's parents. Once Robert and Kathleen got engaged, Kathleen's mom printed off an "engagement contract" for Robert as a joke. Kathleen played it off as serious and Robert, not wanting to miss out on the love of his life, signed it.

The day Kathleen graduated from Washburn with a Criminal Science degree was also the day the two married.

The beginning of married life would be hard on many. They moved into an apartment and then later bought a house in the country but they worked opposite shifts. She on 1st shift, he on 3rd, with Shawnee County. They didn't see each other often.

Then, he took a job in Lawrence that would be more regular hours. However, being the low guy on the totem pole, he got moved to courthouse security though that job wouldn't last long. A crime scene opening became available and Kunze was on it.

Pearce said Kunze applied to the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office right after graduation. She said it was one of his first applications. But he didn't quite have the experience necessary so he took the job in Shawnee County. That is, until 2006.

DEPUTY KUNZE'S BEST FRIEND

Pearce sits as Deputy Rob Lord takes the stage. He immediately asks 12 others to join him. The 13 men and women on stage were part of a recruit class of 14 in 2006 with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office. Kunze was number 14.

"This is our last time together," Deputy Lord said as he'd lay his best friend to rest. But then, the memories began pouring out.

Ten of the men and women in the recruit class knew each other from time at the jail but the other four didn't. Kunze was one of those four. That didn't last long. Kunze immediately introduced himself to everyone, Deputy Lord said.

"You could tell from the first conversation with him that you gained a friend."

Deputy Lord said Deputy Kunze's "desire and passion never faltered" and that lasted through his last call.

Deputy Lord said he would sometimes call Deputy Kunze "Bobby" and he would hate it. But he told Kunze that he himself was also a Bobby so maybe that would help things a bit.

Then, Lord got more personal.

He said he remembered the day Kunze told him that his wife, Kat, was pregnant with their daughter. He then looks to Kunze's daughter in the audience.

"He was very proud of you," Lord said. "I know why. You're exactly like your dad."

"Continue to make him proud," Lord said to the girl in the front row.

Lord said Kunze joked that Lord wouldn't be invited to his retirement party because, "I knew way too much," he said. Lord then gave another funny story of the two and how they pranked each other.

He said the pranks often would go on for days. He'd get back at Kunze and think he won but then come to work the next day and realize that wasn't quite the case.

"He made life more enjoyable," Lord said.

Deputy Lord said he couldn't wait to go back to work to tell Kunze his stories and hear Kunze's stories too. He said they talked nearly every day and wishes they would have spent more time together outside of work, despite the great distance they lived apart.

"Mr. and Mrs. Kunze, you raised one hell of a man," Deputy Lord said looking at Kunze's parents. "He's one of the greatest people I've ever met. I'll never forget him."

Deputy Lord finished by saying he's not saying goodbye to his best friend, he's just saying goodnight.

THE KUNZE DAUGHTER

Five weeks early and after a long shift, Robert's wife, Kat, would wake him up telling him her water broke. The hospital was a 40 minute drive and the couple was not ready. It was early.

Once their daughter was born, she had to be taken to the NICU and would stay at the hospital for a month before she was strong enough to come home. Right after she was born, the doctors had to whisk her away to care for her and Dignity Celebrant Cyndi Pearce said Kat told Robert to go be with their daughter.

There was one problem - they hadn't chosen a name for their girl. They were between three names.

Pearce said Robert looked to Kat to see what to call their baby. Kat told Robert he should choose and he did.

As their daughter grew, Pearce said Robert would play photographer, videographer and more. He would be on the floor with his little girl and would dance with her. Pearce said he would always tell her, "You can do it, baby girl, you can do it."

Then, to the admiration of the crowd, Kunze's daughter, now a young lady and not a baby anymore, got up on stage and read a few sentences about her dad.

"My dad was a hero," she would say. "He protected everyone."

She went on, "He will always be in our hearts and he died very bravely."

It was short and sweet and caught the breath of many in the crowd who watched in awe as Kunze's daughter showed more strength than many others felt.

THE DAY KUNZE GAVE HIS LIFE

Pearce spoke about Kunze's passion for his job.

"This wasn't just a job for him," she said. "It was a career and a passion."

On Sundays, Kunze would always work and Kat would always sleep in. Pearce said it was routine for Kunze to call his wife and ask if she wanted a paper that day.

But on Sunday, September 16, 2018, Kunze wouldn't phone his wife. But she would get a call from Lieutenant Dave Mattingly with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office.

At first, Pearce said, Kat didn't believe him when he told her Kunze had been shot. She even asked if Robert put him up to it, knowing the jokester her husband was.

But this wasn't a joke.

Pearce spoke about two women who Kunze visited every morning when he would patrol. He was in the Lake Afton area and would stop by the office, get a Diet Dr. Pepper and chat with the ladies who worked there.

They heard what happened over the scanner and immediately called Kat to see if she needed them to watch her daughter.

Pearce said at this point, all Kat knew was Robert had been shot. It was her daughter who would try to comfort her saying maybe he was shot in the leg. Her daughter would say maybe he'll be okay.

A car came to get them and when they arrive at the hospital, Kat finds out Robert made the ultimate sacrifice. She fell to the ground processing what she had just heard.

Deputy Lord heard what happened on his day off but he put on his uniform and went directly to the hospital to be there for Kat.

Kat would say that day, she remembers a blur of blue.

As the family went into the hospital, staff lined the hallway near Deputy Robert Kunze's room, Pearce explains. She said there was a doctor in the room with Robert who told Kat that Robert had a gunshot wound to his neck and chest and CPR for 45 minutes couldn't bring him back. He told her she could come into the room but asked her not to touch him.

Pearce said the area went silent except for one voice. Kat saying, "I love you," to her husband.

SHERIFF JEFF EASTER

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter takes the stage next, followed closely by Dolly, Deputy Robert Kunze's mother.

Easter begins by thanking all of the law enforcement who came to support his office. He described Deputy Kunze as someone, "everybody at the sheriff's office knew and loved."

Easter said Deputy Kunze worked a lot of overtime at the jail and he knew him for his smile and for being a jokester. But he said when he'd chat with him at the jail, Kunze wasn't really joking around much. Rather, they'd talk about accident reconstruction, Kunze's specialty.

Sheriff Easter said Kunze led the way in accident reconstruction and they'd often talk about new technology or other ways he could do his job better.

"We relied on him," Sheriff Easter said about needing Kunze to do his job correctly. He said victims in car crashes relied on him to do his job correctly too.

"He always did," Easter said.

The day Deputy Kunze would give his life, he was having lunch with a Cheney Sergeant, Sheriff Easter said. He told the crowd how Kunze was great about working well with other agencies in his jurisdiction.

Easter said the sergeant told him that day, Kunze talked about being a law enforcement officer saying it changed his life for the better. He told the sergeant he looked at people differently just hours before he'd get called out to a report of a stolen .40 caliber handgun. The same handgun would be recovered at the scene of his death later that day.

"What he did that day was heroic," Sheriff Easter said adding he doesn't use that term for just anyone.

"This is one of the hardest moments law enforcement in general, but especially our department can face," he said.

Easter said losing Kunze will leave a hole in the department.

"That hole will be with us forever," Easter said.

The Sedgwick County Sheriff said he can't even say how many cards and emails his office has received from people in the community who knew Deputy Kunze personally. He said Kunze was great at connecting with other law enforcement and the community he served.

"We are a family," Sheriff Easter said. He again thanked area law enforcement for coming out saying this is what law enforcement is about.

Easter touched on his own personal loss briefly saying there was a poem that helped him through his hard times. He read the poem to the family and the crowd.

To the family directly, Easter said, "I hope we have made Robert proud with this sendoff." He said he appreciates the family sharing Robert with the sheriff's office for 12 and a half years.

DOLLY KUNZE

Deputy Robert Kunze's mother spoke briefly to the crowd about how she was asked to find things to share at the celebration of life service for her son. She said she found an old box filled with things she took off his wall when he moved out.

One thing she found was a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that she wanted to dedicate both to her son and all other law enforcement officers in the room.

The quote read, "It is not the critic who counts; Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; Who strives valiantly; Who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; But who does actually strive to do the deeds; Who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; Who spends himself in a worthy cause; Who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

THE CLOSING

The service ended with Cyndi Pearce telling Deputy Robert Kunze's daughter to remember what her dad always told her, "You can do it, baby girl, you can do it."

She said the family appreciates all of the support from the community and wishes they could hug everyone.

Senior Pastor Bob Beckler leads the sanctuary in a prayer and slowly, but with purpose, attendees exit the church and get in their vehicles to drive the four miles to the cemetery to lay Deputy Robert Kunze.