on November 26, 2013 - 10:33 PM
, updated November 27, 2013 at 1:44 AM
ALLEGANY – Whether it was hiking the state’s highest mountain in a blinding February snowstorm to enhance cold weather survival skills or motivating fellow troopers in the safety of a classroom, Ross M. Riley never forgot his most important job – father and husband.
“When he was out of town and work ended, it was time to go home and mow the lawn, and he couldn’t wait – yes, he couldn’t wait to mow the lawn – because he knew his daughter would be riding with him up on the mower,” State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico told more than 1,500 police officers and hundreds of other mourners Tuesday at Riley’s funeral.
The 44-year-old father of three daughters was killed a week ago when he tumbled backward off a ledge in the gorge at Letchworth State Park in Wyoming County during a training mission to simulate the rescue of a person stranded in perilous circumstances.
How the 17-year State Police veteran became untethered from his safety line while on the ledge with two other members of the Special Operations Response Team remains under investigation. He fell more than 30 feet to the base of the gorge in the area of Wolf Creek.
But on Tuesday, with his wife and daughters only a few feet from his flag-draped coffin at St. Bonaventure University’s Reilly Center, it was a time for police officers from as far away as Oregon and California to learn about one of New York State’s finest.
D’Amico shared the lawn-mowing story as an example of how Riley could turn a chore as simple as cutting the grass into special father-daughter bonding time.
The same kind of bonding would happen when Riley learned of a deceased military veteran in need of a burial with full honors. The former Marine who served in the Persian Gulf War would head out with one of his girls to the cemetery and play taps on his bugle.
And there was the time his backyard swimming pool liner burst and a wave of water flooded into his finished basement through an open window.
“Most of us would have told the story with frustration and anger. Ross thought it was hysterical because his daughter was on a float the whole time and rode the wave of water as it flowed through the breached pool wall,” D’Amico said. “For Ross, the flooded, finished basement was an afterthought.”
State Police Major Charles Guess, a friend and fellow Special Operations Response Team member, said he often relied on Riley for insights, describing the trooper as an “informal leader” who specialized as a tactical paramedic.
Riley’s devotion to providing a healing hand through emergency medical care was evident by the arrival of his coffin not in a hearse, but in the ambulance for Allegany Fire/Rescue, where he volunteered. That was a request he had once expressed to his wife, never dreaming it would be fulfilled so soon. But in life, Guess said, Riley was unstoppable. “When we were hiking to the top of Mount Marcy in February and Ross was breaking in a new pair of boots, he realized they weren’t working out,” Guess said. “His feet were hurting him.”
Instead of giving up, Riley called his wife, State Police Sgt. Heidi Riley, commander of the State Police barracks in Olean, who with their daughters jumped in the family car and met Riley at a rendezvous and gave him his old hiking boots. The next morning, he and another trooper who made the drive with him completed the hike up the Adirondack peak, Guess recalled in making a strong case that the word failure did not exist in Riley’s vocabulary.
“He lived a life of love, achievement and adventure,” Guess said before saluting at his friend’s coffin and citing the Marine motto, “Semper Fi, always faithful.” He then recited Riley’s shield number, 2105, and said, “Thank you for your service, Ross. Until we meet again.”
Riley’s pastor, the Rev. Michael J. Lonto of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Salamanca, told of how the fallen trooper never hesitated in his duties to protect public safety.
“When he put on his shield, he went out to fight the wolf. He was fighting evil out there, and he’d give his life,” Lonto said. “I would tell him I had his back, that I was praying for him, and he would say, ‘Father Mike, I have your back. I’m praying for you.’ ”
Lonto recalled that Riley served in many capacities at the church, from Sunday school teacher to elder, and that his goal this year had been to read the Bible in 12 months.
He said one of the images that remains vivid in his mind was a visit to the trooper’s home.
“Ross was sitting in this big chair with two of his daughters resting on him, and Heidi was cuddled up nearby,” Lonto said, remembering how he had thought to himself now there was a contented, family man.
Those types of memories turned the sprawling Reilly Center into an intimate setting where it seemed everyone had just lost their best friend. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had also wanted to be part of the gathering and flew across the state, but heavy snow had prevented his plane from landing at Cattaraugus County-Olean Airport, and he had to turn back.
Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure University, had opened up the center to police, and Lonto thanked her for that, while also expressing sympathies for the loss of Tyler S. Davis, the sophomore history student found dead Sunday by the west end of campus.
Lonto, though, tried to hold the sadness at bay by focusing on the accomplishments of Riley’s life, calling him a true asset to the community who will be more than missed.
“He wasn’t defeated in that fall. We were,” Lonto said. “This loss isn’t just for the Riley family. This loss affects Cattaraugus County, this loss affects New York.”
As the tributes and remembrances ended, troopers and other police officers passed by Riley’s coffin, each of them offering a solemn bow of the head, before the coffin made the final journey to nearby St. Bonaventure Cemetery.
On the way there, the funeral procession passed beneath an oversize American flag suspended by the ladder trucks of the Olean and Weston Mills fire departments. At the cemetery, Riley was buried amid a blanket of freshly fallen snow.
“Job well done,” Lonto said, “good and faithful servant.”