At 82, Howard's oldest volunteer officer is not the retiring type

Herb Michael still works 10-12 hour days as volunteer police officer

  • Herb Michael has spent the past 16 years as a volunteer officer for the Howard County Police Department and recently passed 25,000 hours on the job. Now 82, the former State Farm Insurance agent still puts in long days, typically beginning around 5 a.m. According to his supervisor, Michael works more hours per week as a volunteer police officer than most of his professional counterparts.
Herb Michael has spent the past 16 years as a volunteer officer… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
May 20, 2011|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

Everybody in the Howard County Police Department seems to know Herb Michael.

The nearly two dozen fellow volunteer officers who serve alongside him call Michael "The General." Police Chief William J. McMahon met Michael long before he trained and supervised the former State Farm insurance agent. They all treat Michael with respect bordering on reverence, and for good reason.

Since retiring after a 40-year business career at age 67, Michael has worked more than 25,000 hours for the department, typically beginning his shift around 4 a.m.

"It's the way I've always been, even when I was in business. I went in around 5 or 6," Michael said as he drove his police car around the county one recent morning. He is 82, but looks about 15 years younger. "I've cut down a bit now, maybe 5 [a.m.] to 3 [p.m.]'.

Twice named Maryland's Volunteer of the Year, Michael has also worked for the Special Olympics, with the Baltimore County Department of Aging and at a summer camp for disadvantaged youth. He and his wife of 63 years have also volunteered at their church. He recently received a special pin with an eagle insignia for his hours of service to the Police Department.

"It's phenomenal the amount of hours that this guy puts in," Lt. Chuck Jacobs, who oversees the volunteers, said of Michael. "It's ridiculous. He works more hours in a year than some of our patrol officers."

Said Petrus Lucas, a 23-year-old volunteer officer who has aspirations of becoming a professional police officer: "Herb is a great inspiration. It goes without saying that we all wish we can be as active and energetic and useful at Herb's age."

Michael thought he was done working when he retired in 1995 from State Farm. But, he said, "I found out real quick that I wasn't the kind of guy who needed a rocking chair. I needed to do something."

He and his wife, Grace, volunteered for the Department of Aging but found it depressing when people they befriended began to die off. Then he joined the Howard County Police Department, which had added the auxiliary officer program the year Michael retired.

It seemed a good fit. Even while working as an insurance agent, Michael had worked security part time for Pinkerton at Baltimore Colts home games from the time the team began playing at Memorial Stadium to the day it left in 1984.

The addition of the auxiliary police force was not immediately well-received by the volunteers' professional counterparts.

"They thought maybe we were coming in to take over their jobs," Michael recalled. "It turned out to be really successful because we help them out a lot."

Michael said that he has become a "one-man" recruiting office for the auxiliary police, often going to local VFW posts and senior centers to find potential candidates. There are 22 volunteers officers in the county. The youngest is 19; Michael is the oldest. Most of the older recruits are like Michael when he started — looking for something to occupy their time.

"The last academy, we had four or five guys in their 60s," Michael said. "They are great. The guys who deserve a lot of the credit are the guys who are still working their regular job eight hours a day who donate their time. I think that's commendable."

Michael spends most of his time directing traffic — often when crews are working to restore power to traffic signals or clearing accidents — or getting abandoned cars ticketed or towed. He also goes to homes to conduct security checks and tell homeowners what they need to do to keep their home from being burglarized.

"We normally do everything a sworn officer does except respond to crime scenes. The auxiliary program really took over the abandoned vehicle program from the cops, and they love us. When I tow a car, I might have to wait half an hour for the tow truck. You don't want a cop to sit down and wait. They should be out getting the bad guys," he said.

Not that Michael's job is without danger. He has, on occasion, helped catch criminals.

The most memorable instance came shortly after Michael joined the department, when he heard a report over the police radio of a bank robbery in Ellicott City. He was nearby and drove into the strip mall where the bank was located.

Michael saw a man fitting the description of one of the suspects, who apparently had called a taxi to pick him up at an adjacent convenience store. Michael, in uniform, called the dispatcher and got out of his car so the suspect could see him.

Fortunately, the police with guns were soon swarming the area.

"That was dumb. … He could have pulled out something and blew my head off," said Michael, who wears a bulletproof vest but only carries Mace.

McMahon is grateful that Michael, the father of three sons, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather to two, is still on the job — even after losing the sight in his left eye two years ago as the result of a medical condition.

"He really serves as a mentoring guide to everybody" in the volunteer program, McMahon said. "He's just a great role model for everyone, and he always has been."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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