Shawano Police Chief Ed Whealon, who retired Friday after more than 34 years with the department and 12 years as chief, could just as easily have been retiring as a game warden if he hadn’t been nudged in a different direction.
“We had a career day in high school, and I thought being a game warden would be kind of neat,” Whealon said.
That’s why when Whealon, who is originally from Fond du Lac, was being recruited as a football player by a number of colleges, he chose the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, which had a program that could guide him into what he thought was his chosen career. It also happened to have a reputation as a top criminal justice college.
The turning point for Whealon was a job at Kettle Moraine State Forest, where his boss was Wally Ketter.
“One day, Wally comes up to me and says, ‘Ed, you don’t want to be a game warden. You like investigating stuff too much. The game warden stuff can get pretty boring,’” Whealon said.
After getting his law enforcement credentials in 1975, Whealon started looking for a job.
He tested and interviewed with the Monroe Police Department, Rock County Sheriff’s Department and the Shawano Police Department.
“Whoever calls first is where I’m going to go,” Whealon said he decided.
The next day he got a call from Shawano Police Chief Don Thaves.
“He offered me the job and I took it,” Whealon said.
As it happened, the Monroe Police Department and Rock County also made job offers, but they called too late.
When Whealon started in Shawano, he wasn’t expecting it to be permanent.
“I really had no intention of staying,” he said. “I thought, you know, it’s a stepping stone.”
After getting married, his wife, Diana, was not immediately thrilled with Shawano.
Whealon recalled driving with her one night before the city was as developed as it is now.
“A bear comes walking out right in front of us and I had to slam on the brakes as this bear walks through,” he said. “Then I go down the street and a bunch of deer run through. She looks at me and says, ‘Why’d you drag me here? This is like the zoo.’”
As it happened, Diana, who graduated from Platteville with a degree in animal and agricultural science, was hired at 21st Century Genetics in Shawano and the couple bought a house here.
“Chiefs love cops with a mortgage,” Whealon said.
Whealon soon found that the stepping stone was his destination.
“I enjoyed my job, enjoyed the people I was working with,” he said. “She enjoyed her job.”
When the Fond du Lac Police Department called to offer him a job, he turned it down.
“I’ve never thought about straying anyplace else,” Whealon said.
Things were quite a bit different when Whealon started with the Shawano Police Department.
“We didn’t have a field training program back then,” he said. “It was, ‘Here’s your ticket book, here’s your gun, here’s the keys to the squad car. Go out there, be a cop and don’t kill anyone.’”
Whealon spent his first two weeks riding along with the sergeant because the city’s insurance wouldn’t cover him until he had been an officer for at least 14 days.
“I had a really good bunch of guys that I started working with,” Whealon said. “I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by pretty good people.”
Whealon’s tenure also saw the introduction and growth of technology, which brought enormous changes.
When he started, Whealon said, “everything was kept on paper. Everything went onto a 3x5 card.”
A clerical employee would file those cards in a huge bank of filing cabinets that officers searched through anytime they needed to look something up — everything from criminal complaints to descriptions of stolen property.
Reports were all done by hand or with a typewriter.
When computerization finally arrived, it paled in comparison to what’s available today.
The first computer the department had held one megabyte of storage and was considered so huge officers thought they’d never fill it up.
It was full in about eight months.
Today each of the department’s squads are outfitted with computerized systems that can return detailed information on a driver an officer has pulled over with a swipe of his driver’s license.
“I was fortunate to see and be part of a huge transition,” Whealon said.
Whealon will be taking many memories with him — not all of them good.
“Unfortunately in this job you see so much stuff that’s gut-wrenching,” he said. “You see people do things to other people that you wouldn’t do to your dog. You see people in (domestic) situations and you beg them to get out of it. You see kids that are abused, kids that are sexually abused.
“And when you think when you’ve seen it all, you see something else and you say, ‘I can’t believe that. I can’t believe somebody would do that.’ If you’re doing this long enough, nothing is going to surprise you and you’re always ready, but you’re always shocked when it does happen.”
On the flip side, “there are times when you can make a difference in someone’s life,” Whealon said.
“There was a family we knew, they were as poor as church mice,” he said.
It was Christmas and, “we knew they weren’t going to get anything,” he said. “We’d pool some money to go to Country Store and buy a big bag of groceries, buy some presents for the kids.”
That effort eventually led to the department’s Christmas Crusade, which delivers gifts to children who might not otherwise receive any.
The Shawano County Sheriff’s Department also partnered in the effort, which has grown to include students from Shawano Community Middle School, staff members from Theda Care Clinic and Shawano Medical Center, Sweet Adelines, and Woodland Chapter of the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Inc.
Whealon’s career, although centered in Shawano, has gone beyond the city. He has also served as president of the Wisconsin Police Chiefs Association, where he is also on the Legislative Committee, and the North Central Chiefs of Police Association.
“They always say you’re just going to know when it’s time,” he said.
And he began to feel it was time last fall, as he grappled with the budget.
“You think, ‘how much more fight have you got, how much more effective are you going to be?’” he said. “Maybe it’s time.”
Whealon said he has been lucky to have the support of the mayor and the city council, and a staff of great officers.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said.
“The chief of police might be the head of the department but it’s the officers that make the department hum and makes the department look good,” he said. “It’s the officers out there on a daily basis doing their work, face-to-face with the community. They’re the ambassadors of the community.”
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