Joseph Robert "Bob" Bolesta Jr. dies at 69

Was city Police Department's most senior member at time of his retirement

August 23, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Col. Joseph Robert "Bob" Bolesta Jr., a popular retired city police officer who is credited with the establishment of the department's SWAT team, died Thursday of cancer at his Westminster home.

He was 69.

Colonel Bolesta, the son of a salesman and a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised in Arbutus.

After graduating in 1959 from Catonsville High School, Colonel Bolesta served in the Coast Guard.

He then worked selling business forms and whiskey and as a draftsman before joining the Baltimore Police Department in 1966.

"I wanted to chase bad guys and lock them up. My happiest times were when I was in patrol," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1999 interview.

"The towering, athletic man was promoted at a pace unprecedented for his time — sergeant in four years, lieutenant in six, captain in just over eight," reported the newspaper in the 1999 article.

"For three decades, four mayors and six commissioners, Colonel Bolesta patrolled city streets, helped build the modern SWAT team, drew up budgets and hired countless fresh-faced recruits to follow in his footsteps," said the article in recounting his career.

He was a 1972 graduate of Northwestern University Traffic Institute.

While Colonel Bolesta was known as a strict disciplinarian, he earned the nickname from his fellow police officers of "Gentleman of Headquarters," for being devoid of public displays of anger and allowing his displeasure to take a more dignified course.

During his 33-year career, Colonel Bolesta was on the streets as a patrolman during the 1968 riots and fished a body out of the bear pit at the Baltimore Zoo in the 1970s.

When he was a district commander, Colonel Bolesta one day was informed that a prisoner had escaped a police lockup. To the surprise of his fellow officers, Colonel Bolesta jumped out of his chair, ran down the street and apprehended the man, who was promptly returned to jail.

On Good Friday in 1976, a Lombard Street sniper had "killed an officer and pinned colleagues under a fusillade of bullets," according to the 1999 article. The incident became the impetus for the establishment of the tactical division, which Colonel Bolesta headed.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he ran the patrol bureau, the largest command on the force.

From 1994 until 1996, Colonel Bolesta was assigned to downtown headquarters, where he headed personnel and training and drew up the department's $200 million budget.

Being behind a desk didn't slow Colonel Bolesta down.

In 1995, after having survived a heart attack and two strokes, he "hit the streets with a young officer, and it made his day to stand in the street in his dress blues and direct traffic around a fender-bender," recounted the 1999 article.

During his police career, Colonel Bolesta developed a reputation for avoiding political infighting after he and two other commanders were removed in 1996 from their positions after a city watchdog group issued a report that pointed to racism on the force.

Then-Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier removed the three white commanders, including Colonel Bolesta who was given the assignment of overseeing maintenance of the department's 10-story headquarters building at Fayette and President streets.

Colonel Bolesta accepted his new assignment with characteristic grace.

"It's part of the game," he said. "I'm a big boy."

At the time of his 1999 retirement, Colonel Bolesta was the department's most senior member.

"He was proud of his profession," reported The Baltimore Sun at the time.

"In describing his job, he reverts to the old vernacular, when you weren't just a police officer, you were 'a po-lice' — a term that veterans utter with reverence, recalling the days of long overcoats and call box keys, when a cop was as important to a neighborhood as a parish priest," the newspaper observed.

"He was a tremendous credit to our agency," said Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Michael J. Andrew, who is head of special operations.

"He was one of my mentors and teachers when I came here in 1977. He was always a good manager, started our SWAT program and was a great leader. He was highly regarded and highly respected," he said.

"He was a major building block of the department and had incredible integrity," he said.

"And he taught us that the most valuable thing was integrity, an integrity beyond reproach, and if you had that, it would take care of you," Colonel Andrew said. "And if you had that, then the citizens of Baltimore would in turn take care of you."

During the early years of his police career, family members recalled, Colonel Bolesta worked the midnight shift; during the day, he unloaded trucks to earn extra money for Christmas gifts, family vacations in Florida and to send his children to college.

In his retirement, Colonel Bolesta had been a consultant to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In 2006, he was appointed to the state parole commission by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

He was an avid golfer and Ravens fan, and was a member of the Westminster Elks.

He was married for 48 years to his high school sweetheart, the former Carol Hipsley, who survives him.

Colonel Bolesta was a communicant of St. John Roman Catholic Church, 43 Monroe St., Westminster, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

In addition to his wife, survivors include four sons, Robert M. Bolesta of Frederick, William Bolesta of Reisterstown, John Bolesta of Olney and Michael Bolesta of Parkville; a daughter, Chrissy Dodd of Greenville, Del.; two brothers, Michael Bolesta of Towson and Timothy Bolesta of Reisterstown; a sister, Mary Jo Friedman of Kill Devil Hills, N.C.; and 18 grandchildren.

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