Image via Tampa Bay Times
There aren’t many 20-somethings who are praised by the President of the United States for their heroism, save perhaps members of the armed forces serving in combat. Christopher Michael Proper did serve in the military. But the heroic act that earned him thanks from the president and the head of the FBI didn’t come on the battlefield. It happened at his local Winn-Dixie.
It was 1968 and 21-year-old Mike Proper had returned from service in the Marine Corps. He was grocery shopping with his wife when, according to a story in the Tampa Bay Times, Proper leapt onto a gunman robbing the store and pinned him down. Proper was hit twice by bullets but so was the gunman, who happened to be on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List for the murder of a bank customer four months earlier.
After commendations from then President Lyndon B. Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the young insurance salesman set his compass in a different direction: law enforcement.
Proper, who died this month in St. Petersburg, Fla., served in the marine patrol, was deputy sheriff, police chief and corrections officer. He most recently worked as a park ranger at Egmont Key where he also spent much of his off-duty time fishing and boating.
In a feature story following his death, Tampa Bay Times “epilogue writer” Andrew Meacham said that Proper had assisted with a 3,000-pound marijuana bust and, while serving as sheriff’s deputy, could be seen “chasing down drug dealers in a white Trans Am.” He provided security for actor Burt Reynolds and was a fan of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Soon after he began work at Egmont, his behavior became erratic and inappropriate. He was later diagnosed with Pick’s disease, a rare neurodegenerative illness that causes dementia and loss of speech, among other symptoms. The disease eventually got the best of him. Proper died June 9 at the age of 66.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."