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PONTIAC — As a new prison guard only 14 days on the job on July 22, 1978, James Spray didn't understand why his supervisor sent him on errands to other parts of Pontiac Correctional Center, but one question he got when he arrived in the west cell house stunned him.

"They kept asking me why I wasn't dead," Spray said Tuesday morning on the lawn of the prison. "I had no idea what they meant."

Spray was unaware that seconds after he left the north cell block, inmates armed with shanks and other weapons jumped a line of nearly 600 inmates waiting to return to their cell house from the recreation yard. The guards were overwhelmed, leaving three injured and three others, including Spray's supervisor, Lt. William Thomas, 49, of Saunemin, dead.

"He saved my life," Spray said of Thomas. "He had a feeling something was up. He sent a few of us on errands that day. He was looking out for us."

On Tuesday, the 36th anniversary of the riot, the Livingston County War Museum unveiled at the prison a tribute to Thomas and two other guards killed that day, Robert Conkle, 22, of Graymont and Stanley Cole, 47, of Pontiac. The three were veterans, and the museum has reconstructed their military uniforms for display.

The idea for the tribute came from U.S. Army veteran and Pontiac resident Tom Heenan.

"I went up to the War Museum and I saw (fallen Pontiac Police Officer) Casey Kohlmeier's police uniform and it brought tears to my eyes," he said. "When I saw that, I thought about Bob Conkle. He and I used to run around town together and he was a dear friend."

Heenan recalled shaking hands with Conkle, a newlywed at the time, when Heenan shipped out for service in West Germany.

"The first letter I got was from my mother, who told me that Bob was killed in the riots," Heenan said. "I couldn't believe it."

Heenan talked with officials at the museum and started the job of finding and restoring replica uniforms. They will be on display for a short time at the administration center of the prison before being moved permanently to the museum in Pontiac.

"These men gave their lives in service to the people of the state of Illinois, after having risked their lives in service to the people of the United States of America," said Tom Shaer, director of communications for the Illinois Department of Corrections.

"We honor these three military veterans who also were employed at the Pontiac Correctional Center," said Pontiac prison Warden Randy Pfister. "Their sacrifice in the line of duty will never be forgotten."

The state's deadliest prison riot likely was planned the previous night by gangs who were trying to send a message to the the prison's new warden, Thaddeus Pinkney, who was perceived as a threat to gangs.

It started around 9:45 a.m. and involved more than 1,000 inmates. Fires were set in prison buildings, causing about $4 million worth of damage.

By 3 p.m., most of the inmates were contained to the prison yard, surrounded by police. State troopers armed with shotguns worked in groups of 25 to 50 to return prisoners to their cells.

By 5 p.m., all of the inmates were back in their cells, and by 8 p.m. all were accounted for. None of the prisoners escaped.

Tuesday's ceremony was just outside of the administration building at the prison. On hand were current guards and employees of the prison and family members of the victims.

"This was a very nice way to honor Bill, Rob and Stan," said Jean Thomas, wife of William Thomas. "That day changed our whole lives. I am so proud that these uniforms will be on display. It really means a lot."

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Staff Writer for The Pantagraph.

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