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Ashland police officer seals 40-year career in public service

Courtesy photo | Ashland police Sgt. Robert Smith retired July 31 after 40 years in public service.

Robert Smith remembers the day clearly — on June 2, 1980, he was offered a position as a full time patrol officer with the Ashland Police Department.

After more than 40 years in public service, APD’s most senior sergeant retired July 31.

Smith is the longest tenured employee with the city of Ashland, according to City Manager pro tem Adam Hanks.

Smith was hired as a park patrol officer the summer of 1979 and became a parking control officer in March of 1980. At the time, he just needed a job.

On the Fourth of July, 1979, Smith rode in a police car with Lt. Ernie Childrith, an “old grizzled veteran,” through Lithia Park, as dozens of people waved and yelled, “Hey, Ernie!”

“That was the defining moment for me when I said, ‘You know what? Maybe I would like to be a police officer because of the connections that you can make and the community,” Smith said.

Years later, at a training session, a training supervisor said law enforcement officers are “figures of central validity” — crucial members of their community. The message stayed with him.

During his time with APD, Smith served as police association president, detective, crime prevention and DARE officer, Explorer post advisor and patrol sergeant.

Smith doesn’t claim to be the best police officer, and he recognized ups and downs over the course of his career.

“If you really understand the job, you understand that it’s a little bit more than just, ‘I want to help people in the community,’” Smith said. “The role has really morphed from doing law enforcement to doing a lot of social work.”

When people tell him they want to become a cop, Smith says the true test is how well you can think on your feet and adapt to the times. He has never suffered a debilitating injury while on duty, which he attributes to a willingness to communicate with people and deescalate situations.

“My philosophy has always been: Treat [suspects] as if they were a member of your family,” he said. “How would you want a member of your family to be treated under the same set of circumstances?”

About 12 years into his career, Smith became the crime prevention/DARE officer. The program allowed youth to experience a different example of law enforcement than representations on television or, in some cases, seeing a family member arrested, Smith said.

Former students still come up — their own children in tow — and say they remember his face, along with tidbits of the DARE program they watched nearly three decades ago.

“That was the best part of the job that I ever had because of the connections that I made,” Smith said. “For a period of time, because I was in the schools for so long, as those kids got older and went through middle school and high school, they still remembered who I was, and that connection remained.”

Smith said his career was defined by other good police officers who showed him the way, including Lynn Parlette, Mary Duhaime, Teri Desilva, Janet Bailey and Malcus Williams.

Smith credits Frank DeAutremont as the truly longest-serving employee with the police department — who worked for APD from 1956-1976, was forced to retire and then volunteered with the department well into his 90s.

“It has been an honor for me to have served in this organization,” Smith said. “We have always been on the cutting edge of doing the right things by the citizens of the community. That’s what I’m proud of.”

Now retired, “I want to live my best life,” he said.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.