Today, though, he plans to turn the page on an exciting new narrative as he graduates from Southeast Missouri State University’s Law Enforcement Academy and suits up as the new code enforcement officer for Canalou, Missouri.
“I’m going to be 68 years old next month,” said John. “There’s no reason for me to lie down and let old Father Time roll up on me and and just crush me.”
He admits friends and classmates are buzzing about his achievement, considering his age, but he’s quick to dismiss that talk.
“I don’t think it’s anything extraordinary,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always done. In order to succeed at anything, you have to want to succeed at it. It’s what a lot of people in my generation have done. It’s been an amazing process, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The last few months have been a roller coaster ride for the Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Marine. Being laid off “is a very disorienting feeling,” he said, a disruption he’d experienced before after working more than 20 years with Bunny Bread in Sikeston, Missouri.
“When working is that big a part of your life, it is hard to reconcile,” he said.
After pondering his next step he said, “I realized I could just be … but I had to do something. Feeling useful is a big part of my life.”
He reflected on the importance of Canalou, his hometown of about 350 residents in New Madrid County. It’s near and dear to his heart. He’s served as an alderman for many years there and volunteered as needed with a number of efforts. That’s when he began considering filling an unmet need for dependable law enforcement.
“I really didn’t want to do it,” he said, acknowledging someone younger might be a better fit.
But “I really love the town and the people in it,” he said.
That’s when John traveled to Cape Girardeau in July to meet with Bobby Bollinger, training coordinator with Southeast’s Law Enforcement Academy. John stopped by his office to ask if there was an age limit on becoming a police officer.
“I told him there was not,” Bollinger said. “He then asked me if I thought someone his age could do it, and I told him that the only person that could answer that was him. I told him everyone has different drives and abilities and that the Academy was very physical and intellectually challenging, but that if he had the desire and the drive, he absolutely could succeed and complete the Academy.”
John said his wife, initially, was not particularly pleased with his notion in light of recent unrest involving police officers. But she has since warmed up to his newfound profession. And his mother, a Canalou alderman who is still employed in Dexter, Missouri, is okay with his plan, he said, since “staying active beyond retirement age is in our genes.”
John applied to and was accepted into the Academy and began classes Aug. 9. The 19-week course includes 40 hours a week of training, including a demanding physical component.
“It was different,” he says, noting most of his 15 other classmates were “kids” under the age of 30. In one of his first few days in the program, John said he glanced down the row of students where he was seated and mentally calculated that he was older than the three other classmates seated beside him if their ages were added together.
He chides that he has been the butt of jokes and affectionately dubbed “Pops” and “the old man. I’ve gotten a lot of grief, but it’s all been good natured,” he said.
His age has not deterred him from excelling. In fact, he said he unconsciously began competing with his classmates from the very start.
“The sheer volume of information you have to learn – it just boggles the mind,” he said, but he stressed that running – especially sprinting — was the most difficult part.
The physical requirements have also included pushups, situps and shoving a car a certain distance within a specified timeframe, all of which have tested his arthritic ankles, knees, hips and back.
“John was absolutely astonishing,” Bollinger said. “He was doing better than half of his classmates, some of whom were literally a third of his age.”
On more than one occasion, Academy officers had to remind John to slow down a bit.
“I don’t like quitting,” he said, adding that if he embarks on an undertaking, he believes in seeing it through to completion. “I’m in better condition than when I started.”
His last week in the Academy has included being tased – during which he volunteered to go first, taking a final exam (set for today) and participating in a stress combat scenario at the Malden, Missouri, airport. There, he and his classmates demonstrated that they could secure a building, respond to an active shooter and use simmunitions.
When he receives his diploma Dec. 16, he will receive a Class A Peace Officer’s License, the highest level of law enforcement certification in Missouri. On Dec. 17, he will begin his new role in Canalou, where he will work out of city hall and encourage residents to take care of their property and treat their neighbors with respect. His intent, he says, is “to make the kids and the grownups feel safe. That’s really all anybody wants out of law enforcement is to have somebody to watch over us.”
Bollinger says John is about to complete the Academy and will finish near the top of his class.
“It’s been an amazing journey for me,” John said. “I needed something to make getting up for and to make my life worth living. Everybody wants to be useful and appreciated. Self-satisfaction is the best kind of satisfaction.”
As he bids the Academy farewell, he said, “I can’t say enough about the instructors. I am so pleased to be a part of it.”