John David Dryer found his calling as a teenager when he nursed to health a horse that had become entangled in barbed wire.
He turned his grades around, earned his veterinary science degree from Ohio State University, opened his own successful practice -- and then became a police officer.
"I said, 'Are you nuts?' " his father, John M. Dryer, recalled. "It didn't thrill me, to be honest. I was afraid something like this would happen."
The aspiring officer was almost 40 then, yet still very much the headstrong boy he was growing up on his family's farm in Avella. He was going to do what he wanted to do.
Officer Dryer, the father of a 17-year-old boy, eventually joined the force in East Washington, where he patrolled two days a week. The elder Mr. Dryer found only fleeting comfort knowing the borough is small and not the kind of the place he expected his son would find trouble.
But a traffic stop on Interstate 70 late Sunday brought the unimaginable. Officer Dryer pulled over a minivan whose driver fatally shot him and wounded another officer, Robert V. Caldwell, who had responded as backup. The officers, both 46, were lifelong friends who met when they were 8 years old. State troopers early Monday shot and killed the gunman, Eli Franklin Myers, 58, after a standoff at his home.
"They both acted very courageously and professionally," East Washington Mayor Mark Pacilla said.
Officer Dryer's path from Chestnut Veterinary Clinic, where he once cried when he couldn't save a sickly calf, to patrolling the ridges and valleys of western Washington County was not a traditional foray into law enforcement. But in many ways it was a natural one, those close to him said. The care and consideration he showed animals and their owners made him an astute patrolman, both commanding and compassionate.
He put himself through Indiana University of Pennsylvania's municipal police officers training academy, despite his family's concerns for his safety. "He was interested in making sure people did right," said Gary Smith, a cousin and confidante. "In this day and age, that's a tall order."
Before he joined the East Washington force of 17 part-time officers and a full-time chief, he patrolled in both Midway and Donegal Township, where resources and cash were scarce. Officer Dryer, who made a good living as a veterinarian, didn't mind the modest wages or the risks of patrolling 50 square miles of countryside alone, said Ethan Ward, a district judge and former police chief who hired Officer Dryer. Instead, he donated untold hours, bought field-sobriety equipment for the department, lent his bloodhounds to investigations and paid for gas so officers could travel to training.
"People will never know how much Dave Dryer did because he wasn't a self-promoter," Judge Ward said.
He got his start in law enforcement as a deputy wildlife conservation officer in the southern Washington district. Hiring him to that post 16 years ago was Doug Dunkerley, a former officer who is now a land management group supervisor for the Game Commission. He did a good job of handling the job's diverse aspects, which ranged from defensive tactics to poaching and safety zone cases.
He joined East Washington in August 2010, about six months after Officer Caldwell, a former state trooper who retired from the Washington barracks and a military veteran who also works as a Washington County sheriff's deputy. While writhing in pain from a gunshot to the hand, Officer Caldwell on Sunday managed to radio dispatchers to send help for his fallen comrade.
"He was in good spirits but, in another sense of the word, he was certainly down because of what happened to the other officer," said Chief Deputy Jim D'Alessandro, relaying details of Sheriff Samuel Romano's Monday morning visit with Officer Caldwell at Allegheny General Hospital. "You go through something like that, and you're always questioning yourself. He did an outstanding job."
Officer Caldwell declined to comment Monday through a hospital spokesman. Chief D'Alessandro described him as "conscientious and dependable." He opened both officers' personnel files to reveal numerous commendations and accolades.
"They're both outstanding men," he said. Chief D'Alessandro met Officer Dryer in 2006 when he offered to help train the department's dogs for manhunts and missing children.
He also worked as an equine veterinarian through Heinz Hitch, the team of black Percheron horses that pulled an antique wagon at countless parades.
At home, Officer Dryer was a doting father to his autistic son, Benjamin. In an interview with the Post-Gazette in 2000 about training bloodhounds, he said his son gave him motivation.
"My son Ben, who is 5, was very sick when he was born. In fact, a couple of times I thought I was going to lose him," he said. "I think this is why I want to search for missing people, particularly children."
An extended family of law enforcement on Monday helped the Dryer family plan a policeman's funeral. Officers from neighboring departments offered to fill East Washington officers' shifts so they can mourn and pay respects, as is often the case when one among them dies. A Pittsburgh police chaplain, the Rev. Michael Roach, rushed to the borough office to help in any way he could.
The support was overwhelming, Officer Dryer's father said.
"We're all trying to come to grips with what's happened," he said Monday night, stunned. "The world is a poorer place because he is gone."