May 23, 2013 at 2:34 PM ET
Tatum Raetz graduated from kindergarten this week, just three days after her police officer father was killed while investigating a drunk driving case.
But the 5-year-old girl definitely felt her father’s presence at her ceremony, thanks to nearly 300 uniformed officers standing in his place at her Phoenix elementary school.
The officers lined the school’s sidewalk on Wednesday morning to greet Tatum and her mother as they arrived for the graduation.
“When they stepped out of the car, they saw a sea of blue out there. The officers were clapping, calling out her name, congratulating her,” said Phoenix police department spokesman James Holmes, who attended the ceremony. “The look on her face was absolutely priceless.”
Tatum was given a bouquet of flowers before she walked down the line of officers, at times shyly hiding behind her mother. The girl’s elation was obvious, as were the officers enjoying the bittersweet moment.
“We probably soaked the sidewalk,” Holmes said. “It was impossible not to be emotional in that moment.”
Tatum’s father, Daryl Raetz, was fatally hit early Sunday morning while investigating a DUI case. The 29-year-old Iraq war veteran had been with the Phoenix police department since June 2007.
On Monday, several officers learned about Tatum’s graduation ceremony and word spread like wildfire within the department, Holmes said. The initial handful of officers planning to attend soon burgeoned into dozens, and then far more.
“It turned into the entire department going, ‘No way, I’m going, you can’t stop me’ kind of thing,” he said.
Many of the officers were off duty, and some had come off full night shifts. Those who couldn’t make it attended a fundraiser that afternoon for Raetz and a firefighter who was killed the same weekend.
Holmes said the department called Raetz’s widow, as well as Tatum’s school to make sure they wouldn’t disrupt the graduation.
“We were there for Tatum, but we ended up supporting the 88 children who graduated. We stood for them, we cheered for them. They put on their skits and we loved it up,” he said.
Afterward, officers handed out toy badges and let some children sit inside their patrol cars.
"I’ve never ever been prouder of being a police officer than yesterday morning. It was absolutely amazing," Holmes said. "I’ve been a cop for 37 years. I’ve never seen anything like it."