By Doc Watson
Special to the Herald Times
MEEKER | After 29 years of service to the citizens of Meeker and Rio Blanco County, Mike Washburn is retiring from the Meeker Police Department (MPD) at the end of May, having also served with the Sheriff’s Department before the MPD.
Born in Racine, Wisc., in 1950, Washburn grew up not only there but also in Macomb and St. Louis, Mo., and Houston, Texas, as his father served parishes in each as an Episcopal priest.
It was while in college at Kansas State that Washburn’s fraternity brothers set him up with a girl who was attending Cottey College, an all girls school in Nevada, Mo. While that relationship didn’t work out, the one with another girl he met there certainly did, Mary Oldland.
Married in 1971, they moved into the house here in Meeker that has been in Mary’s family since her well-known grandparents, Ambrose and Mary Delaney Oldland.
Soon after moving to Meeker, Washburn joined the volunteer fire department, where he served for 23 years as a firefighter and EMT.
In 1989 Sheriff Ron Hilkey hired Washburn to serve in the detention center. Washburn, Bob Ruckman and several others, however, wanted to become POST certified police officers, which they accomplished through CNCC in Rangely.
POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) provides peace officers with the training and certification mandated by the state.
Finishing his career in the sheriff’s department in 2003, where he had reached the rank of sergeant, Washburn wanted something new. There was an opening at the time at the MPD, so he made the move.
Washburn’s style of law enforcement was molded much by experience.
“I’m fairly laid back,” he said. “After my time in the jail, I found it was easier to work with the inmates if I treated them with respect. And if you do that, they will generally return the favor. If they don’t, however, you will see that right away and know that you have to deal with them differently to try to bring them back around to being respectful.”
That approach has served Washburn well. He has had few physical confrontations in his career, though there have been some.
“I have always found that when I see my way is not working, to then make sure that I’m the first one who changes the rules, not the one I’m dealing with, which forces me to catch up.”
One such incident occurred in March 2008, when Officer Washburn and Lt. Glenn Wilson were involved in a fatal shooting of a suspect at the Valley Motel. Wilson, who was forced to fire on the suspect, received a medal of valor, and Washburn received a medal of honor.
While a big part of Washburn’s life, of course, has been law enforcement, it has never been the most important part.
“Part of who you are is a police officer, but I have tried very hard not to let it become me,” he said. “I’ve seen cops go through their whole career with their entire life being the cop part to the detriment of the family. So, when I’m not on duty, I’m still watchful, but it’s not my life.”
That marriage and family emphasis came shining through as Washburn recounted the times he and Mary would not see each other much because he was on the night shift. When he got home at 3 a.m., there would be a note waiting for him sharing the day’s events, saying “I love you” or even reminding him to take out the trash. He would in turn leave her a note, and she still has some of those.
“It was a little thing like that, among many, many others, that made the marriage work,” he said. “It’s about communication and mutual respect.”
That emphasis also comes through in another area, and Mary “outranked” him on this one. She has insisted throughout his career that he wear his bulletproof vest.
“She touches my chest before I leave the house to make sure,” he said with a smile. “It’s really the wise thing to do, I think. You never know what’s going to happen, however remote the possibility. That’s actually a problem with being a cop in a small town. Things don’t happen frequently enough to keep you on your toes.”
Having been planning for this retirement for awhile—Mary will soon retire as well— the Washburns are looking forward to the coming years. They enjoy doing short trips, such as to the Four Corners area, having more time with their grandchildren and putting out a garden.
What Washburn said he will miss upon retirement is dealing with people, that is, those “in pleasant situations,” he said, as well as “the camaraderie with other officers.”
In a series of brief interviews, it was quickly discovered that the appreciation of and affection for Mike Washburn in Meeker is palpable. One of many comments was, “He is a good hometown policeman. Every department needs one.” He’s “genuine and sincere” another stated and “a people person” added another.
A common thread running though all the comments was that throughout his career Washburn has not reflected, as one citizen put it, “the cop persona” that is sometimes true of police officers. Another put it very well: “He’s able to balance between professionalism and compassion and has a calming effect on situations.”
“He’s a constant,” someone said. “He’s there when you need him,” said another. “He’s just helpful, always doing the right thing and giving a hand up.”
Several times people noted their appreciation for Washburn’s “looking after the young people” of Meeker, which was manifested in many ways (and not just for the candy he’s a living legend for handing out).
Such appreciation was certainly evident in 2015 when the students of Meeker High School chose the Washburns to be their homecoming parade grand marshals.
The capstone of our poll, however, was perhaps the citizen who stated, “Mike Washburn is the exemplar of what a cop should be. His attitude of being a servant of the people is unequaled.”
Indeed, to the citizens of Meeker, the old saying “to serve and protect” is not just a motto to Washburn but a way of life. It’s easy for the “protect” part to become the major focus for a police officer, but it’s the “serve” part that has been his passion.
Though his retirement is well earned, his uniformed presence will be sorely missed.
By Doc Watson