By John Blake, CNN
At first glance, it looks like another of those viral photos that we can barely watch anymore.
It shows a White state trooper and a Black man during a traffic stop on a bright, sunny day. The trooper is leaning his thick arms through the open passenger window to clutch the Black man’s right hand. The man’s back is pinned against the passenger seat, and his eyes are squeezed shut. He appears to be wincing in pain.
But this photo is being widely shared for another reason. The trooper is reaching into the car to help, not to harm. And the encounter has been described by those who witnessed it not as tragic, but inspired.
“It was a really beautiful moment for me to see this take place between my dad and the officer,” said Ashlye V. Wilkerson, the 39-year-old driver of the car who surreptitiously took the photo.
The state trooper still has trouble digesting what happened that afternoon.
“It’s just one of those things I can’t explain,” said Trooper Jaret Doty of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
Doty thought he was stopping a stranger that day. It turned out he had traveled down the same road as the man whose hand he held.
A ‘Daddy’s girl,’ caring for her ailing father
Their serendipitous meeting took place March 28, a Monday afternoon. Wilkerson was driving her 2016 silver Volvo south on Interstate 85 in Rowan County, North Carolina. She had picked up her father, Anthony “Tony” Geddis, who had just completed a round of chemotherapy treatments at Duke University Medical Center, and was driving him back to his home in Columbia, South Carolina.
Father and daughter’s roles were reversed that afternoon. For all of Wilkerson’s life, her father had been the one to take care of her. He never seemed to miss a parent-teacher conference, driving her to cheerleader practice or coming to high school football games on Friday nights to watch her cheer her team on.
Though she grew up to marry and have two kids of her own, she still called herself “a Daddy’s girl.” She liked spending time with her sharp-dressed father, who often wore cowboy boots with starched jeans, Unforgivable cologne and shirts monogrammed with his initials, TG.
An adjunct professor, author and speaker, Wilkerson said she often asked her father to accompany her to events her husband, Kobie, couldn’t make.
“My father was my favorite person in the world,” she said. “Even in adulthood I would call my father to be my plus-one ticket.”
At 2:15 p.m. that afternoon, Wilkerson heard a siren and saw flashing blue lights in her rear-view mirror.
“Oh God, I’m speeding, Dad,” she said
“OK. OK,” he said, trying to calm his daughter.
In Wilkerson’s back seat were her daughters, Alana, 8, Ariah, 5, and her mother, the Rev. Fannie M. Geddis. She pulled over on the right shoulder of the highway and waited.
The family had well-documented reasons to be anxious. To many Black motorists, there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. Wilkerson had seen numerous videos of unarmed Black drivers killed by quick-triggered law enforcement officers.
“We were very mindful of how things can play out,” she said.
At the same time, Wilkerson says she did not want to prejudge. She tried to keep an open mind as the trooper approached the passenger side of her car.
“I don’t think it’s fair to characterize everyone based on someone’s actions,” she said.
A tense wait during a traffic stop
Her father, Geddis, had already rolled the window down by the time the trooper reached the car.
Doty, a compact man with a buzz cut, introduced himself. He has been a state trooper for 17 years. He decided as a teenager to become a trooper after losing a childhood friend to a drunk driver.
“Ma’am, do you know what speed you were doing?” he said after introducing himself. “I’m going to need your license and registration.”
Wilkerson apologized and reached for her glove compartment. Geddis was so weakened by the chemotherapy treatments that he could barely speak above a whisper. But he roused himself to defend his daughter.
“This is my baby girl,” he told Doty. “She’s driving me home from a chemo treatment at the cancer center at Duke.”
Doty said nothing and nodded. He took Wilkerson’s information and returned to his car.
Wilkerson and her family waited. And waited.
“Gosh, what’s taking him such a long time?” Wilkerson said to her father. “I wonder what’s going on.”
But Doty, 45, wasn’t just reviewing Wilkerson’s information; he was reviewing his own life.
He told CNN how he had become adept at reading people’s body language when approaching stopped cars. He immediately noticed that Wilkerson’s father was slouched in the seat, weakened from pain.
He also noticed how the man was quick to protect his daughter by speaking up on her behalf. Doty recognized that instinct. He shared it.
Doty is the father of a 12-year-old girl, Avery. She also is a cheerleader, like Wilkerson once was. Doty and his wife, Abby, have taken her to numerous cheerleader competitions. They dote on Abby and her 15-year-old brother, Cooper, taking them to Walt Disney World in Florida at least seven times.
“I could tell she was a daddy’s girl,” Doty said of Wilkerson. “I would do the same for my daughter.”
A state trooper makes an unusual decision
But Doty also sensed he shared another connection with Geddis. He noticed Geddis had a pouch attached to his pelvis area. Doty had once been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and had to undergo surgery to remove portions of his colon. He, too, had to wear a pouch attached to his stomach for treatment.
The disease went into remission but returned “with a vengeance,” weakening his body so much that he didn’t have strength to leave the house.
“I felt like I was dying,” he said.
Doty says doctors told him he likely would have gotten colon cancer if his illness had gone untreated. While recovering from surgery in the hospital, Doty made a vow. He thought of all the people who had prayed for him and counseled him.
“I said that if I could touch one person, or help somebody get through their illness, I would do it.”
Doty thought of that vow as he sat in his patrol car, wondering what to do next. He knew he wasn’t going to give Wilkerson a speeding ticket. But was there something else he could do?
Doty closed his ticket book and opened his car door. He walked back over to Wilkerson’s car and turned to Geddis.
“Sir, do you mind if I ask what kind of cancer you have?”
“No, I don’t mind. I have colon cancer.”
Doty took a deep breath and looked at Geddis.
“Can I pray for you?” Doty said.
“Of course,” Geddis said. “I absolutely believe in prayer.”
Geddis was chairman of the board of deacons at his church, and his wife was a pastor. He had held private Bible studies with his wife at home. He quoted passages from the Psalms and loved the hymn, “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” And he had created a ministry to personally mentor young Black men.
Geddis raised his right hand and grasped Doty’s. Both men bowed their heads.
“Father in Heaven …” Doty began.
Wilkerson was so touched by what she was seeing that she took out her smartphone and quietly snapped a picture.
After Doty finished praying, he pressed something in Geddis’ hand.
“I just want you to know that you have someone else praying for you on your journey,” the trooper told him.
Doty straightened up from the car window and bid farewell to Wilkerson and her father. Instead of giving Wilkerson a speeding ticket, he let her go with a warning.
“Y’all drive safely,” he said.
Wilkerson started the car and resumed driving, trying to digest the encounter. Her dad hadn’t even told many of his closest friends he had cancer because he didn’t want them to worry. Her father didn’t speak as they drove away, but she could tell he was touched by Doty’s gesture when she snuck a peek at him.
His eyes had welled up with tears.
A private moment becomes an inspirational story
Two months later, it was Wilkerson’s time for tears. Her father died on May 22, after the colon cancer had spread. He was 61.
Several weeks after his funeral, she was thinking of her dad when her thoughts turned back to that highway encounter. She thought of how, despite his weakened physical condition, his first instinct was to protect her.
She went on LinkedIn and posted a tribute to her father, written as if she were talking directly to him. She recalled the traffic stop and how, “As you always did, you quickly jumped to my defense.”
And then she thought of the state trooper, whose name she did not know.
“Heartfelt thanks to this officer who prayed for and with you that day,” she wrote.
Wilkerson also posted the photo she took of that moment. Her post soon gathered attention on LinkedIn and spread to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as people reposted the image and the story behind it.
She has received more than 4,000 comments from a wide cross-section of people, many of them saying how the traffic stop had restored some of their hope in humanity.
So she added a cheeky posthumous message to her father.
“Don’t fuss at me too much,” she wrote. “I know you didn’t like posting on social media yourself. But you’re just too amazing not to talk about. I love you, dad. Your legacy is safe with me.”
Her story eventually made its way to the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. A spokesman there sent a message to Wilkerson.
“We are deeply sorry to hear about the loss of your father, Ms. Wilkerson,” it said. “We are grateful that our member was able to offer a moment of compassion and solace to you and your father as you made your way through North Carolina. Thank you for being so kind as to capture the moment and share it with others.”
And then news of the story reached Doty. He was blindsided. He didn’t know what had happened to Geddis, or that a photo had been taken of their meeting.
In an interview with CNN, his voice grew solemn when told about Geddis’ death.
“This is not about me at all,” he said. “I don’t want any recognition. I didn’t do anything. This man lost his life, and his daughter is honoring him. I want her to be able to honor him the way she wants, and not for something I did.”
Doty said he often privately prays for the people he stops. Geddis, though, was different.
“This was the first and only time that I ever verbally requested and prayed for somebody out loud on the interstate,” he said.
He’s still boggled by the timing of their meeting.
“I can’t describe the odds of stopping her, because there’s hundreds of thousands of cars that travel through (Interstate) 85 every week,” he said.
Wilkerson has more than a photo to mark that encounter. She also has something else. Doty pressed a pocket-sized object in her father’s right palm during their shared prayer.
Her father kept it on his dresser until the day he died.
“My mom gave it to me after he passed,” she said. “And I keep it on my dresser.”
The memento is a reminder of another link her father shared with Doty.
It’s a silver metal cross.
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