Weather Forecast


Retiring deputy preferred his second career to first

SPRING VALLEY--Richard Johnson had done a lot of building by the time he was approached about becoming a police officer.

The results of his former work in this area's construction industry are still evident, such as the Spring Valley dam, a project on which he operated heavy equipment. That was with an outfit called Groves, but he was also once employed doing excavating for Helgeson Trucking and putting up log houses with Gene Sotona.

Last week, Johnson didn't hesitate when asked whether he preferred being a builder or in law enforcement, however. Although he offered positive words about all the contractors who hired him, it was clearly the people of his hometown and county that made serving with the police his favored career choice.

"Most of the people here are great," the outgoing sheriff's deputy said Wednesday, commending those in the sheriff's department, who represent a cross-section of the area population, he noted.

After two years with Spring Valley's PD and 17-and-a-half more with the sheriff's office, the local native has begun adjusting to retirement. Since his last day on patrol in mid-May, he's mainly been occupied with planting a garden at home, joining the daily coffee group at Deb's and following the sports activities of his grandchildren.

So far, the retired life seems to agree with him.

"My wife wondered how I'd do," he said, explaining about the six-days-on, three-days-off schedule he was accustomed to on sheriff's patrol, "because by the third day, I'd be ready to go back."

In fact, he couldn't remember a day he didn't want to go to work. Yet, he couldn't imagine working anywhere else than here in law enforcement.

Not that the job was always easy. Johnson said he was first on the scene of a domestic homicide at Hager City, for example. He witnessed his share of car wrecks and was frequently tapped by former Sheriff Jim Hines to accompany the sheriff on notification duty, helping tell family members when their loved ones fell victim to tragedies. At one domestic, he recalled a woman crying and saying between sobs, "I suppose you don't like women."

His response: "I like them. Both my wife and mother are women."

He got some good advice during his law enforcement years and gave some, too. He spent his first two-and-a-half years with the sheriff's force as a jailer and former fellow officer Bob Lucente told him, "the way you treat people in here is the way they'll treat you out there," he said.

He recommended the Spring Valley Police Department as a workplace to other officers, particularly appreciative of his native community's support.

"If there's trouble, people will come out of their homes," he said.

In the mid-1980s, when former Spring Valley Police Chief Jim Furuglyas asked him to join the local police part-time, his initial reaction was different. He said he laughed and thought, "yeah, right." But to be closer to his late son, Rory, who had Muscular Dystrophy, he eventually accepted the job.

Hired by the sheriff's department in 1989, he said his duty inside the jail provided valuable training. His formal police education involved 10 weeks of recruit school in Ellsworth. Later, out on the road on patrol, he was generally one of three deputies covering the county at any given time. The number of sheriff's employees hasn't increased much overall during his nearly 20-year tenure, maybe just two or three more.

New laws introduced over his police career have affected how officers handle situations, he said. Legislation addressing domestics require mandatory arrests and a determination of primary aggressors, for instance. The rise of illegal drug use poses a major challenge.

"There's a lot going on in this county, especially west of Ellsworth," he said about development and growth.

Johnson was born two miles from where he now lives, a spot originally settled by his grandparents from Norway, he said. He was raised as one of eight children on the dairy farm of his parents, Henry and Annie, north of Spring Valley, where they moved in 1943 to get away from flooding. As a youth, he enjoyed fishing, hunting and riding horses.

Outside his construction and police work, he's been an avid snowmobiler, a charter member of the Sno Valley club, and active in county and state snowmobiling organizations. He was a member of the Spring Valley School Board for seven years and was on the Spring Lake Town Board for two years. With Patrol Sergeant Tom Gunderson of the sheriff's department, he established the annual wagon train fundraiser for the county's Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program.

The retiree, who'll celebrate with coffee and cake at the sheriff's office June 30 and at a party organized by Gunderson in El Paso July 1, said he's told people he's on vacation and is "just practicing for retirement." His wife, Lynda, is retiring from a home health care position at the Spring Valley Health Care Center the end of this month as well. The couple has a son, Jeffrey, in Muscoda and a daughter, Michelle, in Spring Valley, both teachers.

The Johnsons plan to be with their five grandchildren, enjoy this area's scenic beauty, do some walking (he survived a heart attack a year ago) and eventually travel to such places as Pennsylvania, where a brother lives, he said. Collectors of Red Wing pottery, they hope to participate in that city's pottery convention.

Reflecting on his approach to law enforcement, the deputy said, "I just wanted to be fair."