Bill Kolender was remembered Friday as a “godfather of law enforcement,” innovator, role model, friend, superb speaker, stern taskmaster and “supermensch.”
But San Diego’s former sheriff and police chief also was “funny as hell,” said Pete Wilson, the former governor and San Diego mayor, evoking the mood of a memorial service at the Bob Hope Theater at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
About 1,000 current and former city officials, political leaders, police officers, friends and acquaintances gathered to honor the career of Kolender who died Oct. 6. at the age of 80 after battling Alzheimer’s disease.A portrait of Kolender and a wreath were placed on the stage, and a slide show of his career was projected as people walked into the theater for the 2-hour service.
Kolender was San Diego police chief for 13 years and county sheriff for 15. He became a sergeant at age 26 and police chief at 40.
Tears were shed as a video was screened of his career and earlier funeral service, but more often laughter filled the theater as Kolender’s funny side was recounted.San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman recalled when she first entered the Police Department and did undercover work.
Zimmerman was called upon to enroll as a junior at Patrick Henry High School to investigate “numerous reports of rampant and blatant drug dealing.”
She bought 100 illegal narcotics at the school, and 72 students were arrested after her role as a high school student.
Later, Zimmerman was called into Kolender’s office for what she anticipated would be questions about her infiltration of the student body.
Instead, she saw Kolender standing before her with a piece of paper in his hand.
“Zimmerman, what the hell is this ‘C’ in algebra?” she recalled him saying, provoking laughter throughout the theater.
“I was sure that I was about to be grounded,” she said.
Zimmerman said she explained to Kolender that she did only half of her homework because she was busy buying drugs for the police department investigation.
“Kids today!” was his response, Zimmerman said.
Sheriff Bill Gore also shared a story about Kolender when the former police chief was then a rookie officer in the 1950s.
Gore said he hosted “cop parties” at his home in those days, and one particular party “got out of hand.”
Neighbors called police about the noise, and young Kolender went to investigate.
After noticing police brass and fellow officers at the party, he ordered a drink and joined the fun, Gore said.As Kolender’s widow, Lois, and children (Dennis, Michael, Randie Kolender-Hock and stepdaughter Jodi Karas) listened from the front row, speakers honored his innovation and model of “community policing.”
Kolender told his officers that they needed to get out of their cars and meet the school principals, businessman, parents and other citizens.
“If we never get out of the car, they will never tell us things we need to know,” Wilson quoted Kolender as saying.
Sheriff Gore said Kolender’s greatest legacy was heading the Police Department’s first community relations unit. “Community-outreach policing” was an outgrowth of that — a method of working with the community to solve crime.
Zimmerman said, “I will tell you without hesitation that it was Bill’s vision of community policing that influences the way we police today. His legacy will continue for a long time.”
Speakers mentioned innovations and changes that came about under Kolender such as the department’s helicopter program.Zimmerman also credited Kolender for the agency “embracing diversity with an emphasis in hiring and promoting women and people of color.”
When Kolender was hired in 1956, Zimmerman said, there were only a few female officers and they had “gender-specific” duties.
Years later, Kolender told Zimmerman, “Maybe someday, you can be chief, too, and make your parents proud.”
Speakers spoke of how Kolender’s father wasn’t pleased with his career choice.
“His father was a jeweler and was not too happy and believed that police work was no place for a nice Jewish boy,” Zimmerman said.
But that attitude changed when Kolender became police chief.
Kolender’s demeanor was part of his success, speakers said.
“He had a way of taking very tense situations and easing the tensions in the room with a lighthearted joke,” Gore said.“There’s a level of cooperation and collaboration that just doesn’t exist in other parts of the country,” Gore said. “I trace it back to Bill Kolender. He treated people with respect.”
San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said, “He showed me how to be a good leader.”
Dumanis recalled how Kolender gave people miniature sheriff’s badges.
“Each thought they were special, and they were to him,” she said.
Kolender’s demeanor along with his dedication helped him lead San Diego through tragedies including the PSA crash in 1979, McDonald’s Massacre in 1984, Heaven’s Gate mass suicide of 1997 and school shootings, speakers said.
“He did what he loved, and he did it superbly,” said former Gov. Wilson.
“He was such a witty and great spontaneously funny man,” he said. “And it was a privilege to know Kolender and to learn from him.”
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