MURRAY – The Murray High School Alumni and Friends Association on Wednesday honored alumnus James Payne for his 22 years of service with the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Police Department and the bravery he has shown during recent times of racial unrest.
Payne is a 1989 MHS graduate and played football, basketball and baseball there before playing football at the University of Louisville and eventually becoming a police officer in Fort Wayne. Association President Martha Andrus presented Payne with a framed copy of a June 10, 2020, article written by Murray Ledger & Times reporter John Wright detailing Payne’s role as an officer in dealing with recent large protests and racial unrest.
“We wanted to come together today just to take a few minutes to say we’re so very proud of our fellow Calloway Countian and our Murray High Tiger and all that he’s done,” Andrus said. “Thinking back, the Payne family has such a legacy at Murray High. They’re a very special family that has meant a lot to this high school and will continue to mean a lot, but we wanted to honor James today for what he has been doing, what he has chosen to do as his career, and the bravery he has shown in doing his job. We’re so very proud that he is willing to step up to do a job that can’t be easy, especially right now.”
With COVID-19 guidelines in place, only a small, masked group was in attendance for the short ceremony inside the MHS library, including James’s mother, Mary Payne, brother Walter Payne, sister Bonnie Payne and her son, Jaron Mills. Others in attendance included Mark Brady, a former MHS assistant principal who also coached James in football; Tommy McClure, who is involved with the MHS Hall of Fame; Alumni Association Director Sherry Purdom; Murray Independent School District Superintendent Coy Samons; MHS Principal Tony Jarvis; MHS Assistant Principal Heath Walls; and Ledger & Times Publisher Mike Davis.
“Most of you all know James Payne, I’m sure,” Andrus said. “He lettered in, I think, every sport at Murray High School there was to play. He was an All-State Honorable Mention, he was the Douglass High School Athlete of the Year. He graduated and left Murray High and went on to UofL and played football there, and now he is working as a police officer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which as most of you know, was in the news for quite some time because of all the unrest. James was right there in the middle of it, which doesn’t surprise any of us that know him. We know he’s the type of person they needs to be up there.
“We’re just very thankful for you. We pray for your safety, and we’re just so proud of you being from our community and being a Murray High Tiger. We wanted to present something for you to remember us so that you know that all of your friends back here in Murray have not forgotten you and how much we wish and pray for your safety and success.”
“Thank you, Murray High School and all the faculty and staff and the city of Murray,” James said. “This is amazing; continue doing what you’re doing. Because of each of you, I am doing what I’m able to do in the city of Fort Wayne. It really means a lot and I just pray for each and every one of you, and continue to keep us in your prayers as we battle this pandemic as well as this situation in Fort Wayne.”
After the ceremony, James added, “Murray, Kentucky is so dear to me. This is where it all started; this is the foundation, and coming through the Murray City School System as well as being a Murray High School graduate prepared me for life. So I feel as though, after all the wonderful people that were in my life through Murray, I am able to handle anything.”
After graduating from UofL, James came back to MHS, where Rick Fisher and the late Cary Miller hired him to be an assistant coach. He said he was on the staff when the football team was the runner-up for the state championship in 1996, and after that, he got a job in Fort Wayne as a Child Protective Services case worker. He said he also played semi-pro football there at that time.
“After that, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to stop chasing the dream. I’m 28 years old, let’s do something else,’” James said. “I got on the police force and just never left.”
James said helping individuals is the aspect of the job he values most.
“That’s the reason why I joined this profession, is to help others,” he said. “To give back what was given to me all my years growing up, from high school coaches as well as my college coaches – a legend, Howard Schnellenberger (a retired former UofL football coach who won a national championship with the University of Miami in 1983). Amazing.”
Fort Wayne has a population of 267,633, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 estimate. James, who is Black, said being a police officer in a larger city makes him appreciate the environment in which he grew up that much more.
“The racial tension here is nothing compared to up there,” he said. “Unfortunately, up there, they see color so much. Being here, we got along. We all went to school together, we all played football together, we all did things together. Up there, it’s such a big city, some of these people have the mentality of, ‘I’m going to stick with my own.’ But in actuality, it takes a true village to raise a family, and that’s the kind of atmosphere I’m trying to bring to the city of Fort Wayne.”
When asked to comment on James’s success, Mary said she was equally proud of all her children.
“I’m proud of all five of my children,” she said. “There’s not a certain one – I love them all and I’m proud of all of them. I thank God for giving my husband and me the foundation for them, and it was up to them to build it on up.”