Times have changed in 24 years. Ron Fehr was a little thinner and his hair was a little thicker when voters in Boone County first chose him to be their sheriff in 1988.
In a hard-fought election — his first of many — it wasn’t an easy choice, but Fehr didn’t let that stop him. He set out, as he told this reporter in one of his first interviews as the newly-sworn Boone County Sheriff, to make the office more accessible to the public, and more adaptable in terms of uniting law enforcement officers from diverse agencies to work together for the common good of the people they all serve.
Times and other people (including this reporter for a time) moved on, but Fehr stayed. He worked with more Boone County Supervisors than he probably cares to recall; both the Boone Police and Boone County Sheriff are in different offices since Fehr’s first day on the job, and they work more closely together than ever.
Fehr is now one of the longest-serving sheriffs in the state of Iowa. When he leaves office at the end of 2012, he will be the longest-serving sheriff in Boone County history, and that is a record unlikely to be matched in these more mobile, faster-changing times.
Nobody else would stay that long, he might chuckle. But to Fehr, it is a matter of service.
“It was up and down in regards to winning by six votes in 1988, winning as an Independent, but the people of Boone County — they always seem to know what’s best for the county, I believe. And I’m glad that they decided I was the best guy for sheriff,” Fehr says. “I’m going to miss it.”
If this year’s election to find a successor to Fehr seems hard-fought, one needs only look back on the history in Boone County to see that choosing a sheriff has often been a messy and unpredictable process. A West Bend native, Fehr had worked in law enforcement in Graettinger and Lake City and had been in Boone as a deputy sheriff for six years when Sheriff Hank Wallace decided it was time to retire, and a lot of people in Boone County decided they wanted his job.
“I think there was about seven of us that ran for sheriff that year,” Fehr recalls.
It started as a tight race even in the Democratic primary, where Fehr won by only six votes, but even then he wasn’t sure if he had actually secured the nomination.
“I had some neighbors that came over after the election and it was still kind of foggy that night as to whether or not I had won, because you needed 35 percent and at that time, and I had like 34.8 percent,” Fehr explains. “My neighbors asked, ‘Are you going to have a party?’ Well, not really — I may not have won,” he recalls. “The neighbor looked over at his wife and said, ‘We didn’t vote.’ I said, ‘What! That was two extra votes I missed out on.”
So don’t ever tell Fehr that it doesn’t matter if you vote. He knows that it does.
Fehr did secure the Democratic nomination that year and went to a three-way race in the General Election. In addition to Fehr, the race included one Republican and the Democrat he beat in the primary by six votes running as an Independent, but in the November election Fehr actually came out rather easily on top.
Fehr would have hoped that his toughest race would have been behind him, but 1996 would change all that. With attention focused heavily on Iowa Caucuses, primaries in the state frequently receive far less attention. In 1996, Fehr actually lost in the primary by some 300 votes. Again, he feared it was due in large part to voter apathy.
“I had all these people call and tell me they didn’t vote because they thought I had it in the bag,” Fehr recalls.
After careful consideration, and lots of public encouragement, Fehr decided to run as an Independent, despite knowing it would be an uphill battle.
“Everybody told me that Independents very rarely — if ever — win, because generally you have so many people who will vote straight Democrat and so many people who vote straight Republican; you have people out there who can calculate how many votes you’re going to lose before you even start, and it may look like a mountain to climb,” he explains.
But after he lost in the primary, Fehr recalls, “People came out of the woodwork to help me.”
What looked to be his toughest election turned out to be perhaps his most gratifying moment as sheriff.
“That was probably the most exciting campaign, to actually win it,” he says.
Elections are a part of the job unique to sheriffs. Law enforcement officers, in the simple carrying out of their daily duties, are bound to make a few enemies, but only sheriffs must stand for election every four years. To Fehr, answering directly to the people — and only to the people — works just fine.
“I think it makes people who are in this position more in touch with the people. But if you are appointed, you have to get along with three or five people who are going to decide whether or not you should be sheriff. If that was the case, most likely I wouldn’t have stayed in as long as I have.” Fehr says.
And there were probably a few days — and nights — along the way that made him wonder why he has stayed so long.
“There was one night I actually got shot at over by United Community School,” he recalls.
Deputy Kenny Kendall, recently retired, was first on the scene when Fehr arrived, got in Kendall’s car to talk over the situation, and asked if he had used the PA system to try and talk the man out of a house where he was holed up. Kendall hadn’t, and so, prompted by the sheriff, he got on the PA and asked the man to put his gun down and come out.
“Instead, the guy fired two more shots, and Kenny said to me, ‘You got any more smart ideas?’ ” Fehr recalls. As Kendall and Fehr both went for the floorboards to dodge the bullets, the deputy reminded him, “This car is mine and it isn’t big enough for the both of us.”
Fortunately, it ended well when they decided to wait the man out and were then able to go in get him out safely after he had fallen asleep.
It’s one of those stories that law enforcement officers can tell among themselves and even laugh when it’s all said and done, thankful for when things go well. That is also one of the changes Fehr has seen in 33 years in law enforcement — it’s a more dangerous job than it was back then.
“My first 25, almost 30 years, I don’t recall anyone having to use their firearm on duty,” he recalls.
In the last few years, there have been four officer-involved shootings and three fatalities involving different agencies in Boone County. Back in 1982 when Fehr joined the department as a deputy, it was rare for any officer to even wear a bulletproof vest. Not so anymore.
To Fehr, all the agencies, from police and fire to State Patrol, are all one family.
Creating better unity among the departments through the building of a Law Enforcement Center across from the courthouse is what he considers one of the most important accomplishments of his years in office. The need to work together is echoed by representatives of those diverse agencies in Boone County.
Commander John Sloter has been with the Boone Police Department since 1997 and has seen it grow and respond to the changing needs of the community in those years. A native of Illinois, he worked in a more urban area in Colorado before he and his wife decided to seek a smaller community in which to raise their children.
Here in Boone, he sees law enforcement agencies dedicated to staying up to date with modern challenges.
“One thing that our department here in Boone is very good at is being proactive in the community,” he says.
In programs such as the Citizens Police Academy, the public is encouraged to learn more the workings of law enforcement.
For Fehr, it’s time to saddle up and head west. He and his wife, Sandy, are moving to Montana where they will operate a bed and breakfast inn a short distance from Glacier National Park. Boone County residents are welcome to stop in, he says, and they might even get a break as a guest of the (former) sheriff.
Certainly there are things he will miss, especially from the early days. He is most glad that diverse departments work as a more united team in Boone County. Fehr also honored his pledge to make the office more accessible to the public, and reports that news media once had to scrounge to find are now easily available online. Still he sometimes misses the day when local reporters stopped in for coffee each morning on a daily news route through town.
And when someone stops in the new Law Enforcement Center requesting an old accident report — one made before computers — Fehr is the guy dispatched across the street to find the paper document.
“No one else in the office knows where to find them, but I just go across the street and get them,” he says.
Times will continue to change as Fehr heads into the sunset. But Boone County is better for him having served.