Awards just one way to honor those who go above and beyond

The little girl with freckles named Hannah Hamilton sat in the back row of the first section of seats and listened. She closed her eyes and hoped her dad won. Because every day Hannah goes to school, her father, Ray Hamilton, goes out to work with the traffic unit of the Rock Hill Police Department.

"Some people don't like policemen; sometimes, they shoot at them," Hannah said. She is 11 years old, and she goes to school worried her father could get shot.

Hamilton every day leaves his kids -- Hannah, 20-year-old Justine and 17-year-old Josh -- and his wife, Vanessa. And his newborn grandson named Kaleb. He's 46 years old, four years on the force after 20 years in the Air Force. He has gray hair -- a little bit of hair. Military habits die hard.

Hannah listened as Chief John Gregory gave short biographies of four finalists for Officer of the Year for the department. James Carsto, Tim Marquez, Adam Nemtuda and her dad. All do great things, underappreciated by so many, maybe not appreciated at all by some.

Hannah heard Gregory talk of last February when a car smashed into a tree. The car caught fire. Ray Hamilton, whom Gregory said is involved with the most activities of any officer at the department, with the three kids at home and that wife waiting for him, went to the car where the flames were hot and the time to decide was already gone and pulled people out.

"Calm," is how Gregory described Hamilton's actions during the fire.

How somebody is calm when they have three kids at home and a wife and they go into a burning car instead of running from it is one reason why Hamilton was named Officer of the Year for 2007. His fellow officers nominated and chose him. A super lady named Brenda Laffoon had won the department's civilian award a few minutes before.

Vanessa Hamilton tried to clap, but her hands were filled with the grandson. Justine, Josh and Hannah had to do the clapping, along with the rest of the packed Rock Hill City Hall council chambers.

Hamilton got a plaque and a few dollars and told everybody he likes to keep people safe. "This is the greatest job I ever had," he said. "I love every single day."

I bet the people pulled from that burning car don't think their days are too bad, either.

Hamilton sat down but had to get right back up. He was promoted Monday. Him and eight others in the department. Hamilton went from Police Officer I to Police Officer II. A few grand a year raise.

He stood near a guy named Tim Greene, who won the Presidential Public Safety Medal of Valor a couple years ago and met President Bush. Greene got a little raise, too. All of the nine promoted did.

For all of them to be at the awards, somebody else had to be on the street, working. At the city's main fire station a block away, Bobby Mobley and Steve Rogers were at work. A 24-hour shift. Mobley was named Firefighter of the Year a couple weeks ago, Rogers fire Officer of the Year. Firemen and cops, working at any given time in your city. Nights, weekends, holidays. Bad weather. Gunshots and drunken abusers at 3 a.m.

"My husband has been assaulted a couple times but never shot at," Vanessa Hamilton told me.

Every wife, Mobley's wife, too, is the same. Every day, and night, the cops and firemen go into the uncertain. Most of us go to sleep feeling safe.

The spouses and the children kiss them goodbye, and nobody knows what comes after. An easy shift with no fires or fights, or a rough shift where you are the one pulling somebody out of a burning car.

Rock Hill has hundreds of employees. Almost all of them have jobs where that person knows what he or she will do that day, and he or she will go home safe. Some work physically hard. They pick up the garbage and fix the water pipes and run the electricity lines. But the hardest decision some employees anywhere make -- probably the bosses, like in most jobs -- might be where to go to lunch that day.

Cops and firefighters might not get a lunch. They also might get shot.

The awards were great, and deserved. But the real way to honor these people is to pay them a little bit more and get more of them. Cops, especially. The awards Monday were given out in the same room where your city council decided last year not to add six patrol officers. The plan for months had been to add the six. The plan changed near the finish line.

Ray Hamilton still goes to work whether politicians add nobody or 50 people. His wife, three kids and grandson wait each day for him to come home.