San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender. Courtesy sheriff's department
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender. Courtesy sheriff’s department

Bill Kolender, a career lawman who served both as chief of the San Diego Police Department and head of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, died Tuesday at age 80 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Kolender retired in 2009, 15 years after first being elected sheriff and 21 years after resigning as chief of the SDPD, an agency he joined in July 1956.

A fixture in local policing and politics, Kolender “seemed, in many respects, larger than life,” current Sheriff Bill Gore said.

“Yet, what we will remember most about him will be his personal touch,” Gore said. “When a deputy was injured, he could be counted on to be standing at the hospital bed.”

San Diego police Chief Shelley Zimmerman described Kolender as “a law enforcement legend.”

“Bill’s 50-plus years of service to our … law enforcement community are evidence of his selfless commitment to helping others,” Zimmerman said. “He influenced so many lives — including my own, when he hired me in 1982.”

Kolender, a Chicago native and San Diego State University graduate, became one of the SDPD’s youngest sergeants at age 26 and rose steadily through the agency’s ranks, becoming chief in 1976. At the age of 40 when appointed, he was the youngest big-city police chief, and also the first Jewish chief.

After retiring from the department in 1988, he worked for a time as an assistant publisher for the Union-Tribune. In 1991, he was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson as a director of California Youth Authority.

Kolender was sworn in as San Diego County sheriff in 1995, and went on to be re-elected to the post three times. He stepped down two years before the end of his final term, citing a need to care for his ailing wife, Lois.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.