One of the first things Melissa Rutledge noticed about Buddy Christian 18 years ago was his eyes.
"He had these beautiful green eyes," Melissa Rutledge, now Melissa Christian, said Tuesday. "And curly hair. He had curls in the back."
Elmer "Buddy" Christian, 34, grew from that guy with the green eyes and curly hair at Madison County High School into an Athens-Clarke County senior police officer and a father who folded paper airplanes for his 5-year-old daughter.
Christian was shot to death in the line of duty in Athens on March 22. Police arrested suspect Jamie Hood four days later after an intensive manhunt and a tense negotiation for his surrender.
Melissa was a junior then at Athens Christian High School when she met Buddy, a junior at Madison County High, through her best friend, who was dating Buddy's best friend. Their friends set them up on a date and a couple weeks later, dinner at Oscar's on Baxter in Athens and a showing of "A Few Good Men," with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson.
Afterward they went to Melissa's friend's house and talked on the porch. They hugged, and Melissa went inside.
They dated for three years. He kissed her for the first time at a Michael W. Smith concert. The Christian singer-songwriter's tune "I Will Be Here for You" was one of their favorite songs. They went to prom together.
"There wasn't the Internet then, and it was long distance to call, so we got into some trouble with long distance bills," Melissa said. As an alternative, they wrote letters to each other, signing them "Love, Me," after a favorite Collin Raye song.
On the second anniversary of their dating, he proposed. She sold her horses, he sold his motorcycle and they bought five acres of land to build a house in Madison County.
They married at Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, where Melissa attended church, on Feb. 17, 1996, the curls shaved off the day before. Larry Wynn, the pastor at Hebron, and Randy Crowe, Buddy's pastor at Hull Baptist Church, married them at a ceremony friends and family called the Cinderella wedding. There was even a horse and carriage to whisk the newlyweds away.
"Everyone said we couldn't keep our eyes off each other," Melissa said.
While still in full wedding attire, their first stop was a new Outback Steakhouse in Athens.
"Everyone was staring at us asking if we were for real," Melissa said. "I said, ‘Yeah, I've still got birdseed in my hair.' We went back there every year on our anniversary."
Within a year, they bought their first horse together.
"I've always loved horses," said Melissa, a veterinarian technician. Since then, they bought six more horses and a Dalmatian named Ginger.
In 2000, they bought a farm to raise the horses. Buddy worked first as a volunteer firefighter for Hull, but when a full-time job did not materialize, he looked to the police force.
"He wanted to do something for the community, so he joined the police department," Melissa said.
Buddy often patrolled areas with a lot of children. Sometimes he brought them police badge stickers or candy.
In 2006, Buddy and Melissa had their first child, Callie. Melissa said Buddy at first was afraid to pick her up, but soon warmed to the job of being a father. While Melissa recovered from the pregnancy, Buddy changed the first diaper.
"He was such a great daddy and it came naturally to him," she said. "He called her Buttercup, after the song."
Buddy told her stories when he tucked her into bed, from princess stories he made up to Bible stories about Noah's ark and Joseph's colorful coat. They folded paper airplanes for Callie, "but she didn't like mine because Daddy made them better," Melissa said.
Two years later their son Wyatt, whom Buddy called Little Man, was born. Melissa said Buddy tossed them in the air and let them play rough.
"Wyatt would run full blast and jump with his knees up right into his lap, waiting for him to tickle him," Melissa said.
During Buddy's eight years with Athens-Clarke County,
Melissa said she did not let the danger inherent in police work weigh on her.
"I ride horses and I could fall off and break my neck just as easily," she said. "You can't worry about that. You've got to do what you love and let God handle the rest."
On March 22, Melissa and Buddy talked on the phone, one of the daily phone conversations they had while at work. Buddy said he was having a good day and would be home right after work because he was sore from a workout. He planned to wash his motorcycle.
"When this happened, I knew it was something out of his control," she said. "He was always careful and followed the rules."
Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Jack Lumpkin was at the hospital with senior police officer Tony Howard, who was shot twice during the traffic stop. But he stopped to see Melissa later in the evening.
Close friends from the police department, current officer Mark Pulliam and former officer Donald Weller, consoled Melissa and acted as liaisons between her and the police department.
Melissa said the past week has been unreal for her, and she is still waiting for someone to wake her up. In the meantime, she hears Callie asking if Buddy is in heaven taking care of Ginger and hears Wyatt asking every time the phone rings if Buddy is calling.
She is overwhelmed by the support from the Athens-Clarke County police department, and from police all around the country. Representatives came to the funeral Sunday from police departments around the state and all over the country.
Her family, the community and her faith are keeping her together, she said, and that faith tells her she eventually will be reunited with the green-eyed curly-haired boy from Madison.
"We wrote our own vows," she said. "We didn't like ‘till death do us part.' We don't believe it ends there. We wanted ‘forever.'"