The word hero can be thrown around casually.
It can apply to an athlete. It can apply to comic book characters.
But hear 18-year-old Adonis Byrd use the word hero, and you get a greater appreciation for what it can mean.
“He was a Tacoma hero, no doubt,” Byrd said when describing his late father, Gerod Byrd, who passed away in late October after a years-long battle with cancer.
Byrd was 50, gone far too soon.
There’s a decent chance Gerod Byrd’s name won’t ring a bell for a great many readers. But there’s a similar chance that some of those same readers will have been touched — at least in small way — by the life Byrd lived.
Byrd was a military vet. He served more than two decades in the Air Force.
Byrd was a devoted community volunteer and cycling advocate. He logged countless hours for Second Cycle on Hilltop and Downtown on the Go, among many other organizations.
For the last four years, Byrd was a mobilization specialist with the nonprofit Safe Streets. He worked hand-in-hand with residents in neighborhoods throughout the city and county to improve communities.
And to Adonis, his younger brother Lyle, and their mother Neira, Byrd was a father and husband.
It was all part of a life lived with conviction and purpose, in the service of the people and city he cared so much about.
“He wasn’t just a father figure for me, he was father figure for a lot of people,” Adonis Byrd said. “And I think that’s one thing that not a lot of people can do, and one thing that makes him a hero to me.”
Byrd is not the type of figure typically memorialized in the local newspaper. He often worked in the background, eschewing the limelight. It’s just the kind of person he was, Adonis said.
Still, shortly after his death, Byrd’s many friends and former colleagues began to reach out to me. All had a similar request: a tribute fitting of a man who, through good times and difficult ones, always was there when people needed him.
Noah Struthers, the executive director of Second Cycle, was the first to call. Byrd served as Second Cycle’s board president, combining his passion for cycling and community development.
Struthers called Byrd an “extraordinary fellow,” citing, as just one example, Byrd’s dedication to Second Cycle’s partnership with the Pierce County Juvenile Court Diversion Program. The program utilizes the shop’s space and expertise on Sunday mornings to help kids caught up in the criminal justice system find a path out of it.
It was a perfect fit, just the sort of thing Byrd gravitated toward. Though Struthers described him as a “deeply faithful man, very rooted in his church,” on Sundays when the diversion program was at Second Cycle, Byrd was consistently present and accounted for, with a smile on his face.
Even as the cancer took its toll on him.
He was really a champion for grassroots organization, and people building themselves up. Whenever there was a need or an ask, he was always there.
Second Cycle Executive Director Noah Struthers
“He was really a champion for grassroots organization, and people building themselves up,” Struthers said. “Whenever there was a need or an ask, he was always there.”
Kristina Walker, executive director of Downtown on the Go, echoed the sentiments. She remembered Byrd as a constant presence, someone who became a fixture at local volunteer events and championed cycling throughout Tacoma’s neighborhoods.
“The last time I saw him, a couple months ago, he was on his bike,” Walker recalled, describing Byrd as in the late stages with his battle with cancer.
“He just wasn’t going to let it beat him, even in the end, when it was beating him,” Walker said. “We were just always inspired by him.”
Byrd’s work in the community went far beyond two wheels. Priscilla Lisicich, the executive director of Safe Streets — where Byrd volunteered before being hired and working for the past four years — recalled one project, among many, that exemplified Byrd’s passion and persistence.
She pointed to Mayfair Playground in Spanaway, just off 138th Street and Pacific Avenue.
When Byrd’s work with Safe Streets brought him there, the park was festering with “drugs, needles and trash,” Lisicich remembered. It had been essentially “abandoned,” by the county, she said.
Working with residents in the area, Byrd helped organize an effort to first clean up Mayfield Park and then turn it into a true neighborhood asset, Lisicich recalled. The work eventually involved dozens of community members along with the county and a number of local organizations banding together to reclaim a ballfield and install a new playground.
“It’s one of those wonderful stories,” Lisicich said. “There was Gerod, just believing in the people in that community and helping them to first deal with the problems with crime, and then build a vision for something better.”
“It wasn’t about Gerod. It was about the change that the group wants to make. It was about the commitment of a small group of people who really care about their neighborhood,” she continued. “That’s really a statement about the kind of relationship he had with people in the community.”
The ribbon-cutting ceremony at Mayfield Playground was held in October, 2016 — just over a year before Byrd succumbed to cancer.
When asked how the family is holding up, Adonis Byrd said, “We’re doing all right.” Thanksgiving was good, he said. The Byrds are sticking together.
His father likely would have been proud of the answer.
Still, Adonis Byrd acknowledged there was “a huge hole at the table” with his father not there.
I can say with great certainty that many in Tacoma feel the same way.