For Kevin Smalls and his family, September 27 had always been a day of quiet, somber reflection, a yearly reminder of a future lost on an empty stretch of Interstate 95 30 years ago.
Smalls was just 2 years old when his father, S.C. Highway Patrol Trooper First Class Bruce K. Smalls, was killed in 1985 on the side of the highway in Hardeeville, shot six times by a man in a stolen RV.
In the years since his father's death, Sept. 27 was the day the Smalls family sometimes attended memorial services or called family members to see how they were holding up, Kevin Smalls said Thursday.
But in the last two years, the day has become something else, a time of joy amid the sad memories.
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This Sunday, Kevin Smalls will again remember his father but he will do so as a fellow law enforcement officer.
The son will also celebrate his first wedding anniversary with his family.
Smalls followed his father into law enforcement three years ago, joining the Colleton County Sheriff's Office in March 2013.
Sheriff R.W. Strickland, a former trooper and a close family friend, offered Smalls the opportunity to come on board. For Smalls, who long had an itch to join law enforcement, there was no hesitation.
"It was something I always wanted to do," he said. "As I got a little older, I had backed away from it, but I always had the desire for it. My family was very supportive. It wasn't a surprise. They always thought one of us was going to do it, but I knew my older brother wasn't."
PLEAS FOR CLEMENCY
Bruce Smalls was just 30 years old on Sept. 27, 1985, when he stopped the weaving RV on Interstate 95.
It was driven by Richard Charles Johnson, a hitchhiker who had killed the vehicle's 52-year-old owner near Manning. Johnson had met the man in North Carolina a few days before. He admitted killing the owner and hiding his body under a mattress in the RV soon after he picked up two other hitchhikers near Florence.
Although Johnson said he was drunk and had no recollection of shooting Smalls, he was convicted of murder in 1986 and sentenced to death.
He was executed on May 3, 2002, despite pleas for clemency by Kevin Smalls' grandmother.
A MAN OF CHARACTER
Kevin Smalls has few memories of the time he spent with his father.
The lone recurring one has little context since Smalls can only remember sitting in a carseat in the back of his father's patrol car on their way home from somewhere.
Smalls' mother told him he would stand at the window waiting for his father to come home -- how he would leap up and run to the door when he saw his father's car -- Smalls recounted in 2010, on the 25th anniversary of his father's death.
Smalls kept looking out the window long after his father's death, waiting for a car to pull up that would never come.
Most of what Smalls knows about his father came from the stories from family and friends, who told him about his father's faith and high character.
In addition to being a Vietnam War veteran and a nine-year trooper, Bruce Smalls was also deeply involved in his church and his community.
"Whenever people tell me about my father, they always talk about his character," he said. "They always talk about how active he was in the church. He always believed in helping people and he was always helping others in the community."
'YOU'RE JUST PROUD'
There are other reminders.
The street his family lived on and the church they attended in Grays Hill was renamed for Smalls's father, a name it still bears 30 years later.
The stretch of interstate where his father died was named for him in 2009. Smalls spoke at the ceremony where the signs were unveiled.
Those things still give him comfort.
"The majority of time you're just proud," he said. "You can point to it and say 'wow, that's my dad.'"
Smalls has his father's old badge, displayed in his Walterboro home next to his father's Highway Patrol photo.
Smalls said he has no plans yet to work for the Highway Patrol as his father did. He's now a corporal with the Colleton County Sheriff's Office.
"I just want to continue to grow here and see where it takes me," he said.
A BRIGHTER MOOD
When Smalls and his wife Evette began planning their wedding last year, both knew they wanted a date in mid- to late September.
After looking at the calendar for weekend dates, there it was: September 27.
Smalls isn't sure if it was a coincidence or fate, but he knew that had to be the date.
On the day of his wedding, Highway Patrol troopers carried in a flag and a photo.
They placed them in the seat where his father would have sat, a reminder of what was lost 30 years ago.
"It was rough," he said. "I did a lot of crying, to be honest, but I got through it."
For their one-year anniversary this weekend, Smalls and his wife plan to celebrate with family, but not before stopping by Beaufort National Cemetery to pay their respects at his father's grave.
This year, though, the mood will be much brighter.
"It's not as tough anymore, but in past years it was," he said.
He believes his choice of a wedding date was the right one.
"One date has sort of overcome the other," he said. "We're trying to make it known for something else."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.
- State names part of I-95 after slain trooper, Sept. 25, 2009