By Marjorie Stradinger
Editor’s note: The following is the second in a three-part series. The first part appeared in the Aug. 19-25, 2009, issue.
Don Smith opened Don’s Coins and Collectibles a year after his wife, Regina, died. Her love for Beanie Babies launched what has become a retirement career for him, and a plus for Rockton’s Main Street.
Young Don Smith dreamed of building his father’s local grocery into a business empire. But in Don’s first semester of college, his father sold the store. Don moved to his next-best dream:
“Every little boy wants to be a fire or policeman,” he said. “My dad spent three hours trying to talk me out of it, then I wasn’t finding a job, and told me they were hiring down at the police department. I was the only guy out of 800 to pass the test the first time, and first to go into the Rockford Police Department at 21.”
Don was quickly promoted from patrol to traffic, then to detective in that division.
“Anybody died, suicide, medical, we handled that in the white car,” he said.
“High stress? Police have a high divorce rate.” I commented.
“There’s a problem with some officers. These gals wait on you in the store—flirt like crazy. No thanks,” he emphatically stated.
“It’s about who they are,” I commented.
“How tall are you?” I asked.
“I’m 5-foot-9,” he said. “The minimum to be a policeman.”
“Are you telling your age?” I asked.
“You didn’t have your goatee then?” I asked.
“They don’t allow that,” Don said. “I couldn’t wait…it (the goatee) just had to be there. Couldn’t have it for 30 years—now…nobody can tell me I can’t have it.”
Before police work, Don spent a short time in the Air Force, but couldn’t go back after a surgery. He didn’t want to.
“They were sending me…to become a paymaster,” he said. “I’d have gone back into banking, paying—other airmen.”
“You were meant for business,” I said.
“Since I was 11 years old,” he said.
Even as a policeman, Don was moonlighting: head of security at Logli’s grocery store, traffic instructor for three counties of police departments.
“I loved to get in there and get things done,” he said.
“Was your family supportive?” I asked.
“All the way through,” he said. “Married 33 years. Not a problem.”
“They say happily married men remarry quickly,” I said.
“Well, Regina died, and one year later, I was dating the girl I’m going to be marrying now,” he said.
“What’s the worst thing you saw in 30 years?” I asked.
He described a murder scene so gruesome I can’t write the details he described.
“Down on Harlem Boulevard,” he said. “My partner and I were the first there—found a window open and crawled inside. He said, ‘You go upstairs, and I’ll check down here.’ Went upstairs and…looked in the door…a little girl…if I close my eyes, I can still see it. And a little dog…a hunting knife …killed it.”
“How do you live with those images?” I asked.
“You put it off and try not to think about it,” he said.
“The most rewarding experience?” I asked, eager to move on.
“Something simple,” he said. “A football player broke his neck playing practice football. I managed to doggone stabilize the neck and everything, and get him to the hospital, and he’s up walking around today.”
“You saved him from being a paraplegic,” I said.
“Yes. There were a number of those,” Don said. “Or, a car caught fire, and you had to get the dang door open.”
“Do we educate people to see police as friends?” I asked.
“If they’ve got their minds made up, I don’t think you can change their minds,” he said. “Some people just plain hate police officers.”
“Are you a religious man?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Not brought up with it?” I pressed.
“That’s the reason I’m not religious,” he said. “It didn’t matter if I had the flu, I had to go to church every…Sunday. Not positive. You were sick and still had to get up, get dressed and go to church.”
“Strict parents?” I asked.
“Yes. Trouble is, it wasn’t my parents taking me,” Don said. “It was the neighbor. I don’t think it has anything to do with how I feel about God. I just don’t like church, period. There’s a bunch of hypocrites in that doggone church. And I don’t believe in volunteering. I am not a person who volunteers their time. When I had a day off, I wanted to be working in my garden—that’s where I can talk to Him.”
Don moved to 6 acres out of the city as soon as the department allowed it.
“I was running fast as I could to get out of Rockford,” he said. “I just don’t like the city of Rockford.”
Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years. She can be reached via e-mail at stradingerm@dishmailnet.
from the Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2009 issue