Eagle cop retires after 45 years
EAGLE, Colorado ” Forty-five years go by pretty quickly when you keep yourself busy helping people, says retiring Eagle Police Sergeant Gary Ward.
“There’s young guys out there who get into police work for the excitement, but you have to really like to help people to stay in it,” he says.
Wednesday marked Ward’s official retirement from Eagle’s police force. He’s worked as a local cop for the past 19 years and before that he put in 26 years of service in Big Rapids, Mich.
Ward wasn’t one of those people who always dreamed of becoming a cop. In fact, back in 1960 the Michigan native was fresh out of high school and looking for gainful employment.
First he went to work at a furniture factory in Grand Rapids. The money was pretty good, but Ward couldn’t see himself spending the next 40 or so years on the assembly line. Then a co-worker told him the Big Rapids Police Department was hiring. Because he harbored the hope of someday of becoming a game warden, Ward thought the police job would be a step in that direction.
Ward applied, and accepted a job that paid $3,800 a year.
“I remember the chief handed me a gun and said ‘You are going to have to get some bullets for it,'” Ward says. From there he attended an eight-week course at Michigan State University and then hit the streets he would eventually patrol for 26 years.
Ward’s most memorable night on the job back in Michigan was the evening when he was shot.
Ward was sent to the scene of a domestic incident and when he arrived, he found the wife had been beaten and her husband was holed up in the cellar with a shotgun. As an avid hunter, Ward knew the man because he was a local taxidermist.
“I wasn’t afraid of him. Turns out that was the worst thing I could do,” Ward says.
Ward was slowly climbing down the stairs, talking with the man and trying to settle him down. As Ward attempted to get the man to lay down his gun and come upstairs, the suspect suddenly fired the double barreled shotgun, splattering Ward with buckshot. Ward hadn’t even drawn his own weapon. Then he heard the man reload. Ward flew up the stairs and called for backup.
He could see the man’s feet on the steps through the crack at the bottom of the cellar door. Ward screamed at him to drop his weapon and the suspect complied. He was then arrested without incident, but later, the man would die in a similar incident in another jurisdiction.
After 26 years in his home state, Ward moved to Colorado to follow a dream. He had been hunting in the area for years and had forged a friendship with former Eagle Police Chief Dan Kneale. “I told him if he ever had an opening to give me a call,” Ward says. The call came in 1990.
Ward will never forget his first night on the job in Eagle. It was a Friday evening during hunting season and he was called to Berniece’s, the famed former dance hall located on Grand Avenue. When he arrived, he found a full-blown bar fight under way.
“I walked into the place and it was packed with hunters and I had no backup,” Ward says. So, he pointed to three bar patrons and told them to help him. In short order, the four men had three large bar brawlers handcuffed and placed in the backseat of Ward’s patrol car. He drove them to jail and then doubled back to Berniece’s.
“I went back to the bar and bought those guys who helped me a beer,” Ward says.
In those days, Eagle was a bit wilder. There were six bars in town and they call did a hopping business on Friday and Saturday nights. Ward recalls responding to calls that horses were inside a bar and other mischief. He also fondly recalls the cattle drives down Capitol Street.
Up through the 1990s, Eagle Ranch would move cattle by driving them down Capitol. Calves would escape, requiring cowboys to ride around town to bring them back to the herd. Police officers were always on duty to oversee the operation and field the inevitable complains.
Ward particularly remembers the driver of a white Cadillac who was enraged when her car was dotted with manure after she followed the herd. He sees that as an example of what small town police work can include.
In the mid 1990s, Ward became a enthusiastic competitor in the World Police and Fire Games ” an Olympic-type competition for police officers and firefighters. He won several gold medals in steeple chase and distance events.
During a police Olympics torch run, Ward volunteered for one of the hardest stages and carried the torch from Eagle County to Summit County over Vail Pass. His running prowess has surprised more than one criminal.
Ward laughs, recalling a time when a suspect was spotted at the Brush Creek Saloon and took off running down the alley. The man figured he could outrun an Eagle cop, but he found out he was wrong.
“Later on he said had never seen a cop run that fast,” Ward says.
In addition to running, Ward pursued another passion off the job ” big game hunting. He has the grand slam of big horn sheep trophies ” Dahl sheep, stone sheep, Rocky Mountain big horn Ship and desert big horn Sheep. He shot a record black bear with his muzzleloader.
His love of the Colorado outdoors is keeping Ward close by in retirement. He plans to relocate to Cedaredge with his wife, Margie Ward, who also works for the Eagle Police Department as a community service officer. Margie Ward is a competitive barrel rider, and she and her husband plan to travel the rodeo circuit as one of his retirement activities.
Gary Ward is looking forward to the adventure, but notes he will miss the people who his has worked with for almost two decades.
“Gary just likes helping people,” Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell says of the long-time officer.
“Gary should definitely be recognized for 45 years of law enforcement service to his communities and he also served in the National Guard for 23 years,” Powell continues. “He’s made a true commitment to the citizens of the communities where he has worked and the nation as well. His retirement is well deserved.”
“We appreciate Gary’s service to the town. Police work is difficult and its unusual to see someone with that kind of longevity,” says Roxie Deane, Eagle Town Board member.
As he thinks back on his career, Ward remembers parents who asked him to speak with their unruly teenagers, and then having those kid thank him years later. He remembers the people he helped and is glad he had a career that allowed him to do that. Ultimately, he believes the times he helped out are the measure by which he will be remembered.
“Sometimes you can say you did something good that people will remember you by,” he says.
A survey showed a good bit of support for local government action to bolster workforce housing in town. For now though, that support stops at supporting a new tax for funding.