Each time a new police commissioner arrived in Baltimore, he shuffled the department's command staff. And each time, Kenneth L. Blackwell survived and continued to climb the ranks.
From 1990 until his retirement last week, Blackwell, 56, served as a high-ranking appointee under six police commissioners. During a send-off party Wednesday at police headquarters, and in conversations around the building, his colleagues praised his integrity and cool demeanor.
"He's weathered storms," said Maj. Rick Hite, who first met Blackwell in 1977. "He has weathered changes in leadership and changes in policing strategy. He's a walking history book."
Blackwell was raised in East Baltimore and lived much of his childhood in the Lafayette Courts housing project. His father died when he was 4; his mother held various jobs, including that of postal clerk. He graduated from City College in 1967 and joined the city police force as a cadet two years later.
He worked nine years in the Western District, establishing himself as a respected street officer. He returned in the late 1990s as the commander of the district, and on his watch the number of annual homicides there fell by 22 in two years.
In 2002, Blackwell was promoted to deputy commissioner. Colleagues said he earned a reputation as an unflappable administrator. Under orders from then-Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark to reduce overtime, Blackwell managed to cut $850,000 in five months by establishing a rigorous review system.
He served briefly last year as acting commissioner while Clark was on voluntary suspension during the administrative investigation of an alleged domestic dispute. During that time, he was the department's public face after three children were killed in Northwest Baltimore.
"He's a leader," said Blackwell's special assistant, Detective Charles E. Feaster. "You know that he's a leader just by the way he carries himself."
After nearly four decades in the Police Department, Blackwell said his favorite memory is from the 1970s while he was working as an officer on North Avenue. A young man approached him and asked, "Do you remember me?"
He didn't, but the man told him how a juvenile diversion program in which Blackwell worked had helped him to turn himself from a juvenile offender into a member of the military.
"If you only touched one person," Blackwell recalled, "that feels good to me."
Colleagues said he was connected to the city - sometimes in painful ways. His brother, Ronnie, was shot and killed at Eat Baltimore in 1990.
Relating to people is one of Blackwell's greatest strengths, colleagues said. The retired deputy commissioner likes to talk, particularly about his passions - sports, scripture, family and Corvettes.
Blackwell has two Corvettes. For Christmas, he bought his two grandsons a red toy Corvette to match one of his.
He said he decided it was time to leave the department when he saw young commanders he had helped train assuming leadership posts.
Blackwell went on leave several weeks ago. But even before his retirement officially started, he decided it wasn't for him. After his retirement ceremony Wednesday, he said he plans to accept another law enforcement job within the next week, though he didn't disclose details about the post.