STOCKBRIDGE -- The changing of the guard at the town's police department has come only twice since 1955.
With no hoopla or public ceremonies, as he wished, Police Chief Richard "Rick" Wilcox retires this Friday, four days after his 65th birthday, making way for the new chief, Robert M. Eaton, Jr., who was sworn in Feb. 3 after serving as police captain in Smithfield, R.I. He has been working closely with Wilcox during what both describe as a smooth transition.
"It's time, I'm happy to go," Wilcox told The Eagle. "I will be happy to be retired, I have so many things I want to do and now I'll finally have time to do them." He's stepping down in his 43rd year on the police force -- 28 as chief.
"What I feel best about is what I hope is the goal that has constantly been with me to establish a culture within the police department that reflected the culture of the town," said Wilcox. "When I walked through the door the first day to work for [Police Chief] Bill Obanhein, he kind of growled at me and said, ‘You're here to help people.' And I heard that from him two or three times every day when I was breaking in."
Learning the ropes from Officer Louis Peyron, Wilcox reminisced, "The first time I climbed into the cruiser, Louis said, ‘You're here to help people." Wilcox said he has adopted the same mantra ever since those first days in May 1971.
He acknowledged that "you probably can find any number of examples where that wasn't so, but that was the always the philosophy, the goal. I thought if I could ever accomplish one thing, it would be to create a tone, a culture that reflected that. Where we failed, it's part of human nature, but where we succeeded, that would be the goal."
"If that's at all true in other people's minds," Wilcox added, "that would be the legacy that I would like to leave -- a culture of helping people. People were always more important to me than law."
A local and regional history buff, the Stockbridge native -- descended from a long line of local Wilcoxes and Bidwells going back to the mid-18th century -- has books to read, research projects to complete, biographical papers to be written, travel plans to Hawaii, where he also has family ties, and several projects involving area non-profits. He and his wife, Joyce Butler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, live in Great Barrington.
Even though he has been an iconic figure in town, widely viewed as a Norman Rockwellian figure, Wilcox has been famously media-shy and agreed only reluctantly to a farewell interview at the downtown police station last Friday.
In fact, as a teenager, Wilcox posed for the 1965 Boy Scout calendar cover by Rockwell. But the artist recruited a number of models to be photographed for the same painting before making a final selection.
"Sometimes he took two people and merged them together into one," Wilcox said. "Although I posed for that painting, I ended up on the cutting room floor." His high-school classmate, Bob Martin, was chosen instead, along with Martin's parents, for the cover illustration titled, "A Great Moment."
During his four decades in the department, Wilcox has observed a trend toward a "kindler and gentler" approach to policing. "It used to be big guys with night sticks," he said, "and now you have to be a wordsmith."
He described the style common in the mid-20th century as "pretty rough and tumble, and it was not a desirable job. When I came on the force, we worked six days a week and I had Tuesday night off. Not exactly exciting when you're 22 years old. There was no overtime budget, if you had to work an extra shift, it was ‘thank you for working.' "
Wilcox traces his interest in police work back to his high school days -- though the reason "would require a trip to the Austen Riggs Center," he quipped. He served in the Army during the Vietnam war, including a stint in military police work prior to fighting in the infantry.
Upon his return, Chief Obanhein -- "Officer Obie" of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" talking blues classic and the spinoff 1969 Hollywood film -- offered Wilcox a slot on the force, based on his M.P. experience. Although Wilcox had set his sights on serving in the state police, he soon discovered a liking for what's now called community policing -- "Working in one location, being part of the community."
Rising to chief had not been an ambition, he said, but when Obanhein retired in 1985, the Selectmen voiced a preference for internal candidates. Wilcox applied, along with Louis Peyron, who later became the town's long-serving fire chief. "In those days, it was political," Wilcox said, "and certainly Louis was as well-qualified as I was."
With Selectwoman Mary Flynn backing Peyron and John Beacco supporting Wilcox, the swing vote from Norman Charbonneau came down in Wilcox's favor, he recalled, adding: "Who knows to this day why he picked me over Louis It was a close call; the town would have been as well off with Louis as with me."
As he prepared to hang up his pistol, Wilcox expressed optimism that Eaton, the new chief, shares the same community-service philosophy typical of the department and the entire town.
"That's what you want to have," he said.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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