Tom Atkinson writing third act at SMC

Published 9:44 am Monday, July 29, 2013

Tom Atkinson “retired” again after more than 40 years in law enforcement.

He left the Cass County Sheriff’s Office after 25 years. He and Sheriff Joe Underwood partnered on the road and as detectives.

Tom Atkinson

Tom Atkinson

This time, it’s after 16 years as Dowagiac police chief beginning in August 1997, then Public Safety Department director in 2008, including fire department administration.

Atkinson embarks on a third chapter with Southwestern Michigan College, succeeding retiring staff chief John Fannin.

With a third student housing facility opening, the position is restructured so Atkinson functions as campus security director.

The FBI National Academy graduate told well-wishers who filled Dowagiac Conservation Club Friday evening he applied with Sheriff Jim Northrop for a jail job before he knew what it entailed and was sent to the clerk’s office to enroll for retirement.

“I’m 18, and I said that wasn’t necessary. I don’t plan on being here that long. That was 1972. It said I was eligible to retire in 2016, which seemed like forever. Guess what? ‘Forever’ got here,” Atkinson said. “I found serving as chief of police, where I grew up and dealing with people I know, the most rewarding part of my life. The public side is the most interesting.”

That concept was illustrated when a man came in and sat across his desk and stared at Atkinson: “I wanted to see if I could really come see you. The former chief never let us in the door.”

Or an elderly woman who informed him her husband purchased a grain elevator she thought a bad idea.

“What do you think?” she asked Atkinson, who has served his community on the boards of Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital and Lewis Cass Intermediate School District.

Mayor Donald Lyons’ 16-year tenure coincides with Atkinson’s arrival to rebuild a “challenged department, by all accounts.”

“His first week on the job, Tom did something I thought set the tone for the rest of his time and gave the administration a great deal of confidence. Tom went to the African-American community, which had been poorly served by the city, went door to door and handed out his business card. That spoke all the volumes I needed to know about the man.”

As the DPS director oversaw a new fire station.

“Atkinson’s dedication to the community, the department and his fellow police and fire professionals have been an inspiration and an example to others,” the mayor said. “He is well-respected throughout the community, county and state. Tom leaves behind an outstanding department, which is probably the best testament.”

Atkinson received a tribute from Clay McCausland, district representative for U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, and state Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, and also signed by Gov. Rick Snyder and state Rep. Matt Lori, R-Constantine.

Chiefs Milt Agay, Berrien Springs/Oronoko Township, and Timothy Bourgeois, Kalamazoo Township, represented Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police District 5.

“He was a mentor to me,” Bourgeois said, “and to many law enforcement leaders.”

“He gave his time to the entire state on top of what he did in your community,” Agay said. “I was 10 years old when he started.”

“I’ve known Tom for 10 years. Law enforcement’s a fraternity. You depend on those around you,” Prosecutor Victor Fitz said. “I learned early on Tom ran a first-rate police agency. His officers are a great reflection. They do good investigations, write good reports and testify well in court. He protected the City of Dowagiac in ways you will probably never know. A good chief is more than public relations, it’s life-and-death. Whether murder cases or mundane cases, Dowagiac is much safer because of his leadership. He and his officers treated everyone with respect. Dowagiac is a destination agency now — not a stepping-stone — where people want to spend their careers.”

“I hated to see him leave,” Underwood said, but their mutual trust led to developing a joint drug team voters approved.

“It kind of feels like a eulogy. I’m excited and looking forward to my transition,” Atkinson said. “It’s not a retirement, it’s a career change. I didn’t know I had so many friends besides Sue and Steve,” his wife, Judge Susan Dobrich, and successor, four-year Deputy Chief Steve Grinnewald.

Daughters Julie and Jamie, brother Dick, sister Barb Runyon, Deputy Chiefs Jarrid Bradford and Guy Evans and SMC President Dr. David Mathews attended.

“The true measure of the kind of job a person does is the people they touch,” Grinnewald said. “If you go anywhere with Tom, don’t plan on getting out quickly. Everyone knows Tom and Tom knows everyone. Being a police chief is not just about arresting people and writing tickets, it’s about creating relationships and making a difference. We are very proud to say we work for the Dowagiac Police Department. Tom took a chance on me four years ago. A person has to be humble to train them to take their job. Tom left me huge shoes to fill with a department that has been in existence for 165 years.”

Officers presented him with a retired chief’s badge, a patch shadow box and bought him his duty weapon.