Unsung hero: 2001 CarmelFest parade among Richard Jewell’s favorite memories, widow says

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It’s no surprise that Richard Jewell – a man who simultaneously knew what it felt like to be a national hero but considered a villain – filled his home with photos and items that sparked happy memories.

Among his treasures on display was the magnetic sign attached to the car that carried him as grand marshal in the 2001 CarmelFest parade. The sign and several photos from the event scattered throughout his Atlanta home frequently reminded him of the Indianapolis suburb more than 500 miles away.

“For him to be the grand marshal was one of the highlights of his life,” said Dana Jewell, Richard’s widow. “When you walked into the office, the first thing you saw was that sign (from the CarmelFest parade). He was really, really proud. It was a good experience.”

The honor came at just the right time for Richard, who was still struggling to rebuild his reputation after being named a possible suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which killed two people and injured 111 others, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Richard, a security guard, discovered the bomb and helped evacuate the area before it exploded, but days later the lavish praise had turned into intense suspicion.

Richard – the subject of a Clint Eastwood movie, “Richard Jewell,” to be released Dec. 13 – was exonerated months later, but the damage had been done. Many people still believed he had been involved in planting the bomb, even years later.

“Even in 2001, outside of Carmel people still questioned whether or not he did it,” Dana said. “We would be in a restaurant and see people whispering to each other and looking over our way.”

In 2005, domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing and is serving life without parole at a federal supermax prison in Colorado.

‘Too risky’

In Carmel, the decision to honor Richard Jewell didn’t come without controversy, at least at first.

Jeff Worrell, a longtime CarmelFest volunteer who began serving on the Carmel City Council in 2016, approached his fellow festival planners about asking Richard to serve as the grand marshal after seeing him interviewed on a national news program. He thought Richard perfectly fit the parade’s theme of “Unsung Hero.” But not everyone saw it that way.

“(The committee members) rolled their eyes and went, ‘Sure, go for it,’ thinking it would never happen,” Worrell said.

After leaving several messages for Richard’s attorney and making plans to visit Atlanta to present his case, Worrell finally received a response.

“They really thought it was too good to be true,” Worrell said. “They were so used to all the bad (publicity), they couldn’t believe it.”

Worrell was thrilled when Richard agreed to serve as the grand marshal, but others weren’t convinced it was a good idea.

“Most people were hands off,” he said. “They thought this was too risky.”

But when the parade began, Worrell said he knew the decision had been the right one.

“The entire parade route people were giving him salutes, standing up, clapping and cheering,” Worrell said. “There was not a single negative that entire day.”

Dana, who attended CarmelFest with Richard and his mother, remembers the parade and festival much the same way.

“People were clapping and coming up to us and giving us hugs, thanking Richard, shaking his hand, wanting pictures with him,” she said. “It was amazing. It did so much for Richard at that time. It was such a pick-me-up.”

She said that Carmel was the first entity to formally recognize Richard as a hero, something Georgia didn’t do until 2006, a year before Richard died of natural causes in his home.

On the big screen

More than 20 years after the bombing, Richard’s story will come to life on the big screen this week when “Richard Jewell,” directed by Eastwood, opens in theaters.

Worrell said he is thrilled to see Richard, whose wedding he and his family attended just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, receive the honor he deserves.

“(Carmel) honored him as an unsung hero, so for an unsung hero to now be legitimized and have a movie made about him, I can’t believe it,” Worrell said. “I can’t wait to see the movie.”

Dana also is eager to see the film, which she has not been involved in creating in any way. She said she was amazed by the trailer and how much actor Paul Walter Hauser looked, sounded and acted like her late husband. She will attend a private screening of the film Dec. 14 with approximately 100 people who also knew Richard. She expects it to be an emotional experience.

“I hate that Richard’s not here. All this would mean so much to him,” she said. “My prayer is that this movie will be deserving of Richard.”

‘He was a good man’

When Dana Jewell heard that the security guard who found a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was suspected of planting it, she – like almost everyone else – assumed he was guilty.

“I was like, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe that guy did this,’” she said. “Of course, from what you see on TV, everybody thought he did it, because that was the only thing that was on TV at the time.”

Dana didn’t meet the security guard – Richard Jewell – until her birthday two years later on a “drug bust,” she said. A social worker, Dana requested a police presence to accompany her in checking on children believed to be in a home associated with drug dealers. Richard was one of three officers assigned to assist on the call, which involved several hours of waiting.

“He kept flirting with me,” Dana said. “Then at the end of the evening, he was like, ‘Would you go out with me sometime?’”

Dana remembers chuckling on their first date when someone approached Richard and asked for his autograph.

“(Richard) was like, ‘Why are you laughing?’ I said, ‘I’ve never been out with someone who was asked for their autograph. You’re no Brad Pitt or anything,’” Dana reminisced.

Still a social worker living near Atlanta, Dana said she hopes the recent interest in Richard’s story will help people understand her late husband as she knew him.

“Richard was a good man. He had a big heart, and he loved to help people,” Dana said. “I don’t understand how anybody who ever met Richard would think he would do something like the bombing as much as he loved people and wanted to be helpful to people. Richard was one of a kind. He was a goofball, but he was a good man.”

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