BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - As South Mississippi continues to reel from the loss of Biloxi officer Robert McKeithen, one man is honoring the officer one mile at a time.
Each day with a blue-striped law enforcement flag in hand, John Wilson laces up his tennis shoes and hits the pavement, running 1.26 miles. It’s a task he will continue until he has ran 126 days in a row.
It’s a tribute that is rife with symbolism. Officer McKeithen’s badge number was 126.
Running a mile under the scorching South Mississippi sun is anything but easy, especially for a man who has had six back surgeries like Wilson has had. But he says all the sweat and pain is worth it.
“It is a tribute to honor a hero that has fallen, to show my respect to him," said Wilson. “Maybe more people in this area will show more respect to him.”
Wilson’s family has a history of supporting law enforcement. In fact, it’s how he met McKeithen years ago.
“A few years ago, my daughters started a program called ‘Hug and a Mug.’ They go around giving first responders a hug and a mug in the Arctic cups. Officer McKeithen was one of our first original ‘hug and a mug’ guys that we gave a cup to.”
Grief and disbelief filled Wilson’s head when he learned that McKeithen had been gunned down in the parking lot of the police station.
“When Chief (John) Miller announced that it was Officer McKeithen that had been killed in the line of duty..." he trailed off, adding that he always remembered the big smile Mac always had.
McKeithen’s warmth and smile was something Wilson said he will never forget. “I found a picture of (McKeithen) and the girls and that smile was there."
That smile is now etched into his memory each day as he runs to honor the fallen hero.
“In honor of Mack #126, McKeithen Strong," he says under his breath as he runs, flag waving behind him.
He often thinks that McKeithen is looking down on the tribute.
“That is something I think about every time I run. I say a little message to him, and I hope he is smiling down knowing that we will remember him as a hero.”
Although their interaction was brief, it left a mark on Wilson.
“We really only had a short, brief meeting with him when we gave him his mug and he was about to go in to work," recalled Wilson. "It was about 5 o clock at night or so, and it was that smile."
After McKeithen was killed, fellow officers shared a story with Wilson that brought a smile to his own face.
“(After giving McKeithen a ‘hug and a mug’), he went to work that night and said that he had been ‘mugged,'” laughed Wilson. "It was a very funny story because a lot of the guys knew what he meant.”
That humor is just a small piece of what made Officer McKeithen so beloved in the community.
“I do not want this to be about me," said Wilson. "I am doing this strictly to honor Officer McKeithen and raise awareness in this community that first responders are really important to our lives.”
That dedication and support to law enforcement and first responders throughout the community is something Wilson stresses each day, with each step.
“My family loves first responders and me carrying that flag is letting everyone know that I have their back," he said. "If something happens, I will be there. Whether it is just love and support, or if they need me for something else.”
July 9 marked day 45 out of Wilson’s 126 days of running in honor of Officer McKeithen. He last run is slated to happen on Sept. 30.