They never know when it’s coming, but it always does.
Sometimes it’s subtle: A license plate stamped “756” in big, blocky numerals, a Jim Carey movie rerunning on TV, the whiff of a hoppy IPA. Other times, it’s more direct: A T-shirt with his name on it, a barbecue joint with his portrait on the wall.
It comes clearest in song. Specifically, Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” with its gentle refrain:
Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you.
When you get where you’re going, don’t forget turn back around and help the next one in line.
Always stay humble and kind.
The family calls these signals “Chad winks” because they’re reminders of Chad Dermyer, a Virginia State Trooper who was shot March 31, 2016 while on duty.
“That song always comes on the radio at a time when we need it,” said Chad’s wife, Michelle. “Even now, it happens. My daughter and I were in the kitchen the other day, trying to reorganize the cabinets and I was thinking about Chad and then that song came on and it was like ‘Hey, Chad. I know you’re still with us and watching over us.’”
The reminders keep coming, five years later, because of one family and several communities that aren’t going to let death stop them from celebrating a hero.
From T-shirts to Billboards
It was January 2016 when Trooper Dermyer became a celebrity for the second time.
Early one morning, Dermyer and his partner spotted a small gray terrier bounding across the busy lanes of I-64 in Hampton, Va., and decided to help. Chad’s partner stayed in the car and slowed traffic while Chad chased the dog off the road and into a yard, where he scooped up the pooch and called its owners.
“We were concerned of the dog’s safety,” Chad later told a local news station, flashing a big smile. “We didn’t want him to get hurt or cause a crash.”
The incident brought out more than TV cameras. Morning commuters stopped their cars in droves to snap pictures with the troopers and the rescued pup. Facebook posts about the incident got more than 5,000 likes on the Virginia State Police page.
It was a moment that fit Chad to a T — a simple act of kindness that both protected people and built connections between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
“He loved people and loved serving the public,” said John Dermyer, Chad’s father. “An older gentleman came up to me at the viewing the night before the funeral. He said, ‘Your son used to go by my house on his way to work and he’d stop by and play with my grandson every morning.’ And I never knew that. But that wasn’t unlike Chad to stop and play basketball with somebody. He was just like that. If he saw some way he could help, even just by being there and playing a game, he did it.”
Chad’s acts of service echoed loudly after his death, when community members took it upon themselves to preserve his memory. Shortly after Chad was shot, the wife of a state trooper sold T-shirts in his honor to raise money for the family.
It was meant as a small gesture, but it sparked a big movement.
“The demand was insane,” Michelle said. “People were buying T-shirts left and right. Ever since then, we have continued to create new Chadwear to keep his legacy alive. We’ve made hoodies, sweatshirts and all kinds of things. It’s been amazing to see.”
Chadwear spread across the nation like a dance craze. His dad pulls on a Chad shirt every day — and regularly sees others wearing them around town near his Missouri home. Chad’s sister notices them all around her Michigan hometown. Chad’s mother once noticed a shirt while vacationing in Florida.
Michelle has seen shirts with her husband’s name on them far and wide, worn by everyone from her kids’ school friends to total strangers.
“I was in North Carolina not too long ago at the Outer Banks for vacation and I was wearing a Chad shirt. Somebody I didn’t know came up to me and asked, ‘How did you know Chad?’ And I was like, ‘I’m his wife – how did you know Chad?’” she said.
One day, as the T-shirts were taking off, John Dermyer was talking to his wife about other ways to keep his son’s memory alive. The couple drove past a billboard advertising its space just off the Interstate 35 highway in Missouri. John emailed Lamar Advertising to find out how much it would cost to rent the sign for a couple of weeks.
“I just wanted to put something up wishing the police officers a Merry Christmas and thanking them for what they do,” John said.
The request reached the regional vice president, who called John with an idea. A simple design was created — a thin blue line running across a black background with a picture of Chad’s badge in the middle. The company promised to run the billboard for no charge, as a tribute to police officers everywhere.
It was meant to just be one billboard in Kansas City, but just like the T-shirts, demand overwhelmed the supply.
“I got so excited that I took a picture and posted it on Facebook. Everybody wanted one in their state, so I started calling Lamar Advertising in other areas,” John said. “Then I got crazy and I called the CEO. He promised to place the image nationwide, everywhere they had a vacant billboard. They ended up putting it up in about 21 states.”
To this day, some billboards are rerun each holiday season.
Policing with a Smile
Looking at pictures of Chad, it’s easy to see why people who met him would want to hang onto the memory. His face radiated warmth: a shock of blond hair above electric blue eyes and a smile as wide as the brim on his state trooper hat.
Growing up in Michigan, Chad gravitated toward team activities like band and soccer. He attended Spring Arbor University on a partial soccer scholarship with dreams of becoming a teacher. But after a few semesters, he found a new calling. He dropped out and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, following in his father’s footsteps.
When his time in the Corps was over, Chad found a new way to combine all of his passions — team activities, teaching, and serving — into a single profession. He became a police officer in 2003.
He came to the force equipped with the skills that could turn a policing job from a means of enforcement into a means of support.
“Law enforcement was Chad’s thing. He loved everything about it,” Michelle said. “He was someone trying to make a difference, especially with young people. He worked to establish positive relationships so they would know that if they were in trouble or something was happening, they could turn to a police officer and be assured they would receive help.”
“Chad always noticed the little things,” said his mother, Anne Barnett. “If I’d mopped the floor or cleaned up, he would say something about it. He had a keen eye for things like that. I think it’s why he was so good at his job. He noticed the little things people do.”
“When he was serving in Newport News, he would call me every couple of days and say, ‘I’ve been working the streets for a year and a half, and I’ve been able to get more guns off the streets than anybody else on the force,’” John Dermyer said. “Chad had good policing instincts that were complemented with the ability to connect with the people he served.”
As a trooper and policeman, Chad never forgot that his mission was to make things better. He once told his brother, Johnny, “When I see people, it’s always on the worst day of their lives. That’s something I have to remember.”
Some days that was truer than others.
Chad had a gift for reading people and it sometimes led him to earn trust quickly. It also alerted him when things were wrong. While conducting a routine traffic stop in 2015, Chad got a weird feeling. The driver behaved normally, but something felt off. During his interactions with the driver, Chad discovered the body of her child in the trunk, cold with death.
The story made headlines across the country. It was the first time that Chad was publicly recognized for his exceptional police work.
A Life of Connections
If Chad Dermyer’s approach to law enforcement focused on creating connections, his personal life revolved around strengthening them. He was a dedicated family man who always seemed to be present even while he was serving overseas or working night shifts.
“He was in Virginia and I was in Wisconsin, and we talked almost every day,” said Johnny. “I couldn’t even tell you what we talked about, but we spoke all the time. Even now, when I’m driving home every day and I get to this one turn, I still expect the phone to ring and Chad to be there.”
“He once had to work on my daughter’s birthday and texted me, asking me to wish her a happy birthday because he wasn’t going to be able to talk to her. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s nice.’ Then just five seconds later the phone rang and it was Chad,” said Lauree Dermyer, Chad’s sister. “He said, ‘You know, if I have the time to text you, I have the time to say a quick happy birthday. Can you put her on the phone?’ And it was things like that — Chad always made time.”
Chad met his wife in January of 2000 while he was stationed in Virginia with the Marines. Shortly afterwards, Chad shipped off to Italy for six months, but he stayed in touch and they married that November. Two children, Phillip and Page, quickly followed. He beamed with a father’s pride and talked about them frequently to family, friends and co-workers.
But he did more that. He took the concept of family and amplified it. He treated everyone in his community like a relative.
At the funeral, a stranger approached Chad’s father with another story of kindness. “He came up to me and said, ‘Your son was probably the most professional police officer I’ve ever met. My 17-year-old daughter was in a car accident your son worked, and he came back to the hospital the next day and checked on her,’” John said. “That was just how Chad was. He cared about people.”
It’s fitting then, that Chad is remembered in the same ways he excelled. The soccer field at his high school has been named in his honor. A bridge spanning the interstate where he saved the dog now bears his name.
Billsburg Brewery in Williamsburg, Va., produces a specialty beer called “756 IPA” — named after Chad’s badge number. It was his favorite kind of beer, and the hops are sourced from his home state of Michigan. The 2021 release will be a double batch to keep up with demand.
Friends, former teachers and community members continue to leave remembrances of him at his online obituary at legacy.com.
But for the family who knew him best, the reminders of Chad come in smaller, more ordinary ways.
They remember his devotion to the Detroit Lions. His favorite video games. His love of rap music and turtle cake — a dessert his mom made.
Michelle remembers how much her husband loved grilling. Chad’s mom recalls how he would sit down at the kitchen table as a child and talk to her every day after school. His dad shares stories about Chad with every police officer he meets. Lauree still pictures her brother as a skinny teen, wearing green Umbro shorts and practicing soccer in the side yard of the family home.
Johnny has a different memory. It concerns the end of the song “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh.
After verses about fast cars and mansions, the music fades out. This is where radio stations stop playing the song, but it’s not where it ends. After a few moments of silence, Walsh’s voice comes back, talking in nonsense syllables and making “wah-wah” sounds. Johnny and Chad used to repeat that part to each other and laugh until their sides hurt.
It’s a song that many have heard, but only those who know it best know what happens after the song is gone, when a good feeling drops by and winks, reminding you that even when a great thing is over, it’s never really gone… just like Chad’s life ending too soon, but his legacy will never be forgotten.