He's served well, both in sickness and in health

Retirement: After three decades of perfect attendance, one Westminster police officer will bring his streak and a fine career to an end.

February 14, 1999|By MIKE FARABAUGH | MIKE FARABAUGH,SUN STAFF

Maj. James Melvin Austin will work his last shift for the Westminster Police Department in 12 days and mosey into retirement, never having missed a day in 30 years.

In case anyone is counting, the 61-year-old officer hasn't missed a day of work or school since 1947, when he was 10 years old. He drove a bread delivery truck for 12 years before joining the police force in 1969.

He also worked on a milk truck before before going to classes at the former Taneytown High School. He graduated in 1957.

Missing school happened so long ago, he can't remember why.

"Maybe I had chicken pox, or something, or maybe my mother kept me home with a cold," he said.

Trim and fit after years of shift work, Austin calls his streak "luck."

"I've had colds, but never the flu," he said. "Once, I had three days off and sliced my finger on a band saw the first day, but the doctor stitched it up and I was back in the patrol car two days later."

Austin also recalled spraining an ankle many years ago and coming to work on crutches.

"I sat at a desk with my ankle propped up on a chair and worked my shift," he said.

Police Chief Sam Leppo was on the job about two years when Austin began hanging around Westminster's police station.

"I knew even then that driving a bread truck, delivering baked goods to homes, would soon be discontinued," Austin said.

It was Leppo who one day handed Austin a job application. The rest is history.

"We were partners and became friends, and I'm going to miss him," said Leppo.

He figures Austin's streak is not luck, but "an attitude."

"There were many times when we might have felt sick, but in those days, only one or two of us were on duty at a time," Leppo said. "If you called in sick, that would mean your partner would be all alone, and you didn't want that."

Times have changed, and "I'm tired of working," Austin said. "The worst job in any police department is looking after the property room."

Austin has handled those duties since 1980, keeping tabs on hundreds of items seized as evidence. He used to record each item in a log book. Now computers and bar codes make the cataloging more complex.

In earlier days, when the police force had about six members, officers working the night shift had nowhere to buy lunch or a snack. They had to stop at the fire house to get a cup of coffee.

"There were no 24-hour [convenience stores] back then," Austin said.

Harry's Lunch on Main Street and Baugher's restaurant off Route 31 were the only places to eat. Stores along Main Street and at the Westminster Shopping Center -- there were no others -- closed about 6 p.m.

"Friday and Saturday nights, you could always count on breaking up a bar fight or two," Austin said.

"But we didn't have to face guys with guns, or guys high on drugs in those days," Leppo said.

Once the bars closed, you might not have another call the rest of the night," said Lt. Dean Brewer.

Brewer made sure a reporter pressed Austin to mention a couple of heroic incidents.

On Dec. 8, 1972, five gunmen robbed Farmers and Mechanics National Bank in Union Bridge. A radio broadcast reported them fleeing toward Westminster, and Austin set up a roadblock on Route 31, near Baugher's, and waited.

The robbers crashed near Route 140, jumped out of their car and began running, Austin recalled.

"I chased one, threw him on the ground and handcuffed him," he said. "Then I put him in my patrol car, locked him in, and took off after a second guy."

All five were captured and all of the more than $19,000 they took was recovered, he said.

On Feb. 13, 1974, Austin responded to a Westminster residence, where a man was firing shots from inside his home and keeping troopers at bay.

"I think he was drunk, and I snuck up beside the front door," Austin said. "When he came out with a gun in one hand and a beer in the other, I jumped on him and got beer all over me. The troopers helped cuff him."

For his role in each incident, Austin received the Superintendent's Special Citation from the Maryland State Police.

For Austin, it was all in a day's work.

In retirement, he plans to continue running about 4 miles at least three days a week, a fitness program he started about four years ago. He will tinker with some woodworking projects, run a part-time lawn-mowing service, travel with his wife, Nancy, and spend more time with their five adult children and 17 grandchildren.

"For 10 years, we've been visiting friends in Aurora, Colo., where the police department has an annual fund-raiser at a restaurant," he said. "I got to know some of the police officers there, so I wait on tables to help them out."

Pub Date: 2/14/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.