Charles Otto Ley | 1940-1972
When my brother Dan and I were kids, we played at being heroes.
Superheroes, some days. We’d tie blankets around our throats and jump from the end of the picnic table, soaring off after whatever bad guy or mutant beastie threatened the sanctity of our American way of life — or at least the backyard.
We were military heroes, other days. We’d post our battalion of G.I. Joes on sentry, waiting for Cobra’s inevitable attack. Playing out our bedroom floor battles to a cassette tape soundtrack.
These ideas of heroism, these role models to which we might aspire, were ingrained by our fascination with comic books, cartoon shows. Three-and-a-half-inch men in olive drab with swivel-arm battle grip and removable helmets, gear, weapons, molded into an approximation of the grown-up guys we might one day be.
One of the shows that captivated us, early on, was C.H.I.P.S. It seems ridiculous now, some 30 years later, but Ponch and Jon and their swinging California lifestyle, the coy way they winked at the babes and the swift justice they delivered to criminals were the inspiration for countless backyard routines. We loved ’em. We wanted to be them. With their blue riding helmets and mirrored sunglasses and the way they swooped around on motorcycles — motorcycles! — all to the soaring brass and riding cymbal and Conti-esque driving beat that typified 1970s action.
Yeah, a bit ridiculous. But borne from something real, in the role models we look to for the men we might become.
A Real California Peace Officer in Our Family
Distant cousin Earl Ley, and a deputy at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department with which he was corresponding, don’t enlist the often over-used term “hero” when they speak of the life and tragic death of Charles Otto Ley in a recent email Earl shared with me. They don’t need to. Instead, they recall a young man — younger, when he passed away 39 years ago today, than I am now — with a passion for living, and a love of family and community and dedication to his job.
According to Earl, his older brother was never more proud than the day he graduated from the academy as a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff. Chuck was a man who took pride in service. He was a three-year Marine, part of a family where the four men (his two brothers and his father) served in five branches of the military — the U.S. Army, the Army Air Corps, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force. He worked hard to make the grade as a deputy sheriff, according to Earl, and “loved his uniform, wore it proudly, and (kept it) immaculate.”
Chuck was proud of his athletic ability, too, Earl said, and relished his role as star of the Sheriff’s basketball team. At 6’4, he led the squad to the police Olympics in California, enjoying every minute of competition and the call to sportsmanship on and off the court.
On the police force, Chuck made quite a sight, towering over his much shorter partner, Deputy Roan. The two were fond of each other’s company, and diehards for police work, holding down barstools together long after their shift ended, talking endlessly and devotedly of the rigors of the job.
At home, Chuck wanted nothing more than to provide for his family, Earl said. He tended to house, cars, bills so his wife, Cecille, could lavish time on their four children — Brian, Brad, Marie and Kimberley. Cecille was so confident of Chuck’s abilities, Earl said, she never doubted his safety on duty.
There were aspects of the job that could prove irksome. Whenever Earl visited his older brother in the winter, Chuck was often suffering a cold, the result, Chuck told him, of driving around all winter with his patrol car windows open, listening for alarms. But these were minor nuisances. Chuck loved the community of Industry, and West Covina, where he lived, and cherished time with his family and his beloved animals — his horse, his dog and even eldest son Brian’s pet snake.
And then came one tragic night — May 24, 1972. Chuck and partner were in pursuit of a sports car. The fleeing suspect sped up a highway on-ramp. Chuck gave chase. Whether the treacherous circular roadway proved too much for the police vehicle, or Chuck lost control, the car veered off and rolled over several times, killing Chuck, but sparing his partner.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Industry police community came together to envelope the Leys in an outpouring of appreciation for Chuck’s service. It was a show of respect for which the family was and remains profoundly grateful, Earl said. To this day, a painting of the young deputy Ley hangs in a place of honor at the Industry station.
Though I never knew about Chuck until Earl shared his story this week, I wanted to share his story with our larger family. Those following this blog will recognize, at least in part, the heritage of his name, Charles Otto — for family forefathers Carl Friedrich (or Frederick Charles) and great to the nth power uncle Karl Gottleib (or Charles) Ley; and after Otto Treviran Ley, a son of the intermarrying Minnie (a daughter of my fourth great grandfather Karl Gottleib Ley) and Carl Ley (her first cousin). We join our Ley cousins in pausing to honor his life.