The life of a kind and gentle lawman, affectionately teased by coworkers as “Big Teddy Bear,” was celebrated Thursday as family and friends gathered to say so long, but not farewell to Will Rider, 39.
The big-hearted police officer with the Tyler Independent School District waged a stubborn battle with cancer in recent months, but passed away Sunday to live eternally with his Lord, his pastor said.
Rider's brief time in this world touched many lives — he was a cherished husband, father, son and friend, according to those who knew him best.
Pastor Tony Watson, First Baptist Church Winona, said Wednesday night's visitation attracted hundreds of people, all with humorous and moving stories to share about him.
Watson told a similar-size crowd at his Thursday funeral that Rider desperately wanted to defeat the cancer that took everyone by surprise a few months ago.
“Will was a fighter — I dare you to tell me any different,” Watson said. “If there was a percentage chance he would win, he was going to take it.”
In the end, the disease claimed his body, not his spirit, the pastor said.
“Will acknowledged the inevitable, that the Lord is firmly in control and it was time,” Watson said. “I'm honored I was able to be there for him.”
Rider was born in California and served in the United States Air Force before pursuing a career as a police officer.
Retired Texas Ranger Kenny Ray, now a pastor, shared a kinship with Rider, through their church, law enforcement careers and Blue Knights membership, a motorcycle club for law enforcement.
“This man adored his family,” Ray said. “He was a very confident police officer … I just loved him.”
His calling in life was to be a school police officer and he was passionate about his responsibilities.
“I once asked him, 'What's the most important thing you do as a TISD officer?'” Ray said. “He said, 'I don't let anybody come onto my campus and hurt my kids.' He stood between evil and 'his kids.'”
Rider worked as a TISD officer for eight years, serving at John Tyler High School, Stewart Middle School, Hubbard Middle School and Robert E. Lee High School.
Co-workers said the “Big Teddy Bear” had a good rapport with them and with the students, many of whom sought out his advice.
“He was always there to help you out when you needed it,” longtime friend and TISD officer Andrew Whitfield said. “What makes him stand out is his smile and his personality … we gave him a lot of grief over it.”
Police said Rider had a knack for finding drugs, even when it was 5 p.m. and the discovery resulted in at least two hours' worth of paperwork.
“He was better than a canine,” Whitfield teased. “He knew where to go.”
For his unwavering devotion, he was twice named the department's Officer of the Year.
Veteran lawman Jimmy Mount was police chief when Rider applied for a job.
“I knew him individually, and I knew what kind of guy he was,” Mount said. “I thought he would be a good fit and he was … you couldn't beat him.”
School officials said Rider's role with the district was an important one and they are saddened by his death.
“Officer Rider served our district, its students and staff for nearly eight years, and for that we are truly grateful,” Tyler ISD Superintendent Dr. Randy Reid said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Officer Rider's family, friends and fellow officers during this difficult time.”
Thursday's funeral included dozens of photographs taken over the course of Rider's life, starting as a bare-bottomed infant, then a gangly teenager, followed by a nervous groom, a beaming father and stern-looking lawman.
Perhaps his most memorable moment of hilarity was the large, colorful tattoo he got to commemorate his love for the Blue Knights.
“It was rather gaudy,” Ray said, recalling the day Rider rolled up his sleeve to reveal his new body art. “He was rather proud of it. … It looked like a medallion on his big, beefy arm.”
Ray said he thought the tattoo was a fake so he whacked it, hard.
“I slapped the living tar out of it,” he said above the laughter. “He'd just gotten it that day and it was sore. … I got the big man to the ground.”
“Will was not defeated,” Watson said. “His spirit is with the Lord.”