Tears flowed at the ceremony dedicating the Game Warden Justin Hurst Memorial Highway Thursday, undaunted by the 12 years between his death and the event at the El Campo Civic Center.
The section of Hwy. 71 from the Matagorda County line to the intersection with FM 2765 in El Campo now honors the man who loved the outdoors, wildlife and the job which cost him life March 17, 2007 after a shootout with a poacher on Hwy. 90-A.
“On that fateful night things went really bad, but what we are here to celebrate is his sacrifice,” said State Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, noting that Hurst’s efforts that night saved the lives of other law enforcers pinned down in the firefight. “Every day cars are going to pass those signs and every day they are going to remember Justin Hurst.”
The day’s events included a brief ceremony at the sign posted just south of the FM 2765 intersection. There El Campo Police and Wharton County Sheriff’s deputies closed down North Mechanic Street as more than 100 gathered. With many standing in the roadway, Mayor Randy Collins read a proclamation and State Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton, the bill designating the memorial highway.
The crowd then moved into the El Campo Civic Center for the main ceremony.
Inside Mark Longoria, a representative of local Congressman Michael Cloud’s office, presented Pat and Allen Hurst, Justin Hurst’s parents, with a flag.
Stephenson had another for Kyle Hurst.
Hurst’s son Kyle was just a four-month-old baby when his father was killed, knowing him only through the stories of the game wardens who have always been there to serve in his stead.
“To the Hurst family, you are our inspiration. Generations of game wardens will stand with Kyle,” Texas Game Warden Col. Grahame Jones said.
Hurst’s son addressed the crowd, thanking game wardens, attendees and the city as a whole.
“Other than a few pictures I have of him holding me, I don’t have any memories of him. Your stories about him and your constant ways of honoring his memory have taught me a lot about my father. I can’t thank this community enough for your love and support for me and my grandparents,” Kyle Hurst said, adding, “El Campo will always be my home.”
Stephenson said, “We appreciate everything that Justin did ... He didn’t say why, he said where.”
For the cadre of his fellow tan-uniformed game wardens, Hurst’s name adorns a black ribbon which hangs from the department along with 18 other game wardens killed in the line of duty during the organization’s history.
With each ribbon as a story of service and of loss, Thursday was about Hurst.
“I’m totally amazed at the number of people here today,” Allen Hurst said.
Now a member of the Wharton County 100 Club which sponsored Thursday’s events and a director for Operation Game Thief, Allen Hurst said his son actually urged him to join, pointing out the club had obtained a bullet-proof vest and dash cam for him.
“We lost you Justin, but we gained an army of 500 game wardens,” Hurst said.
Wharton County Justice of the Peace Precinct 4 Tim Drapela wasn’t on the program, but he said he felt compelled to share a story of a brief encounter with Justin Hurst the day of the shootout.
Hurst told him that morning, “What greater life could I have. It’s my birthday. I have a beautiful wife at home. I have a baby at home.”
Less than 24 hours later, Hurst died of gunshot wounds sustained in the line of duty.