Ed. — This story originally appeared in print on Jan. 31, 2020. It was archived online in December 2020.
BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE — On Friday, Jan. 24, family, friends and coworkers of the late Ryan Keith Cox gathered at the U.S. Post Office here that has been named in his honor to celebrate the life of a man who exemplified bravery and selflessness on Virginia Beach’s darkest day.
Amid the chaos of the Friday, May 31, mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, Cox helped others escape from a gunman in Building 2, where Cox worked in the public utilities department.
Cox was among 12 people who were killed that day, and, in the heartbreaking aftermath of the tragedy, he was remembered as a man of faith, strength and kindness — and stories of his heroism and sacrifice spread in this community and beyond.
Last summer, U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia 2nd District, sponsored a bipartisan bill to name the post office for Cox. The measure had the support from the full Virginia delegation.
It came at the suggestion of Virginia Beach Postmaster Joseph A. Croce Jr.
Luria said this in the House of Representatives last summer: “During the shooting, Keith led several of his coworkers to safety. Keith then refused to take refuge, stating: ‘I’ve got to see if anybody else needs help.’ Keith stood watch and checked on his colleagues, voluntarily exposing himself to a deadly line of fire.”
Congress approved the naming, and President Trump signed it into law in August. In January, a plaque bearing the name of Ryan Keith Cox lay in the heart of a ceremony held beneath a canopy outside the post office.
Attendees included Luria, Mayor Bobby Dyer, who praised Cox for his heroic acts, members of the City Council and many city workers. There were representatives from the U.S. Postal Service, including Croce and Dan Smith, a maintenance person whose duties that day included permanently affixing the plaque to the brick wall at the entrance of the post office. There were many loved ones, including people from New Hope Baptist Church, and Cox’s parents, Pastor E. Ray Cox Sr. and Maxine Mills Cox, who unveiled the plaque during the ceremony.
Afterwards, people showed their love to the family, and many took pictures with the plaque beneath the canopy before heading inside the post office to gather together again. Outside the post office, City Councilmember Aaron Rouse said the naming is “a constant reminder of Keith Cox’s heroism and reminds us to love your neighbor.”
“We can’t forget the tragedy that happened here in Virginia Beach,” Luria said during an interview, before speaking of the injuries, some of them unseen, and the other losses on May 31 in Virginia Beach.
“This is only one way to remember one person’s heroism, but there were so many heroes that day,” Luria said.
Naming the post office for Cox is a reminder of such strength, she added.
Dr. James Allen, a minister who serves at New Hope and is a local community leader, said the family appreciates the outpouring of love.
“We miss him,” he added.
Shawn Williams and Melthres Johnson of New Hope took a picture together with the plaque, and they spoke about Ryan Keith Cox’s presence in the church, in their lives — as well as his exceptional singing.
“Angelic,” Johnson said.
Soon after, E. Ray Cox Sr. stood near the plaque. He held his hand toward it while Michael Keyes, his administrative assistant, took a photograph.
The pastor, for a brief moment, spoke about his son. He said he has known losses in his life, and he named some of them quietly, but never a loss such as this one.
His son wanted to follow him in ministry. Ryan Keith Cox was soon to preach his first sermon, his father said.
E. Ray Cox Sr. spoke about the manner of death for his son, calling that violent moment only one of the ways he died.
“Another way he died is in the interest of others, voluntarily putting himself in harm’s way,” E. Ray Cox Sr. said.
He and Keyes walked to rejoin the church family. Someone stopped the pastor to give him a hug.
Dan Smith waited nearby. When the guests were gone, he went to work. He checked how the plaque fitted into the wall. He removed it and placed it gently on a workbench set up to hold it for just a moment.
“I don’t want to put this plaque on the ground,” Smith said.
He carefully worked on the alignment, drilling holes a bit more until it was level.
“I hate it when things don’t line up,” he said.
He had just left the post office on the day of the shooting.
“It’s just so sad,” he said.
He kept working. He said they did a nice job printing the plaque, that it was meaningful the postmaster proposed this.
Croce was still there. He came outside and worked with Smith to permanently place the plaque. Smith put it back on the wall.
“That’s better,” Croce said.
“Yes,” Smith said.
Croce noted that the post office was a place where several municipal employees sought shelter on the day of the mass shooting last year. He said it was clear to him that Ryan Keith Cox’s name should be remembered here at the post office, which is in view of Building 2.
“When I heard the story, it touched me,” Croce said. “It’s the ultimate sacrifice, right?”
The postmaster added, “I should only hope that, if my family was ever in that situation, there’s a Mr. Cox there.”