The Young Man Whispered, “I Want to be Like Him”

Role Models

Paragons and Paladins

Paragon applies to someone who is a model of perfection in some quality or trait. Someone who is the perfect embodiment of a concept, like a role model.  If you ask a Cop who their role models are, chances are they will be other cops, individuals they learned from and tried to imitate.  Cops have often been compared to knights from days of old.  There are obvious symbolic comparisons such as the shield, the body armor, and the weapon.  In both cases, they boldly ride into harm’s way and cling to ideals like justice, selflessness, and camaraderie. Taking it a step further, a Paladin (Latin for “officer”) was considered a champion knight, also with the basic principles to defend, protect the innocent and uphold the law.  In the modern-day, when someone refers to a person as a Paladin, they are likening them to a knight of great nobility and honor.  For me, surrounding myself with Paragons and Paladins never left me short on role models.

A Glimpse of What We Can Be

I’ve written before that role models are how we see into our own future, it’s like getting a glimpse of what we can be, what’s waiting for us. When we find one, it’s as if a voice from within whispers, “I want to be like him”, or “I want to be like her”.  Even when life beats us into near submission, and we think our dreams are out of reach, role models are a reminder of what’s achievable if we just stay in the fight.  It’s strange how life intersects us with that special someone who impresses us, captivates us, and triggers us to take action.  I’ve been fortunate to have had some great ones throughout my life and can chart back every personal achievement to some individual who gave me guidance, leadership, or just their presence to learn from and model myself after. 

“Don’t Cry Because it’s Over. Smile Because it Happened.”

Over the last few months, I’m sad to say, the world lost two of those incredible people.  Both stand-outs in their own special way.  Yet, both possessed common qualities that touched many around them.   These men were strong and confident, yet displayed a tender and kind-hearted demeanor in the way they lived their lives.  That’s not to say they wouldn’t tease you, they could mix it up with the best of them.  Both had a fantastic sense of humor and a natural ability to make you smile.  These are qualities that I’ve always admired.  I have run across many of this breed in the ranks of the military and law enforcement. It seems to be a natural reoccurring make-up that is attracted to a life of service and sacrifice  The two men I speak of are Kennis Harrell and Robert “Bob” Peterson, both DeKalb County Police Officers that I had the privilege to serve alongside.  Both men passed away earlier this year and I felt compelled to write about them, again.  Kennis and Bob have influenced past stories I’ve written, and my goal is to pay tribute to them once more.

Natural for Them, Extraordinary for Others

Before I tell you more about these two superb role models, let’s level set a bit.  Do you have a role model?  I don’t mean some celebrity, public figure, or “influencer” you’ve never met before.  When trying to answer that question, it’s easy to think of someone who has the luxury to show you only their well-crafted forward-facing persona.  Peel back the layers and I wonder what you will find. Gravitating toward someone with this seemingly perfect image on TV or social media is quite common.  So, when I ask the question “do you have a role model?”,  I’m referring to someone that is IN your life.  Someone you’ve had the pleasure to know and have real access to.  Someone you got to see under pressure, whose image didn’t change under stress or tough circumstances.  Someone who leads by example, mentors, objectively handles problems, and genuinely cares about your success.  No hidden agendas, just doing what is natural for them, but extraordinary for others.  When you have access to someone like that, then I’d venture to say that your admiration is in its purest form.  Role models help by teaching us how to navigate a profession, and other times they inspire us to cultivate the character traits we admire in them.  Once we look up to someone, we can find ourselves not only idolizing them but actually imitating their behaviors. For me, such was the case with Kennis and Bob.

If I Did Not Laugh, I Should Die

Abraham Lincoln is credited with the statement, “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die.”  When I read that quote, I think of all my experiences that were saturated in pure misery, stress, and misfortune, where laughter kept me from going bonkers.  Whether it was Marine Boot Camp, the horrors of war, personal tragedy, a rigorous police academy, or working hundreds of homicide cases, laughter and mindset were the cure for hard times and struggle.  Some of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met are also some of the toughest I’ve ever seen, case in point…Kennis Harrell.  In reflection, one of those tough times with tough people and great laughs resulted from 6 grueling months in the DeKalb County Police Academy.  At one point, it was rumored to be one of the toughest academies in the country.   That claim was a direct testament to the instructors and their philosophy of what it took to produce a tough, fit, compassionate, problem-solving police officer. It was there that I first meet Academy Instructor Kennis Harrell.

Always a smile


Kennis was an inspiration for a previous story I wrote, called Lessons From the Police Academy.  On the first day of the academy, we learned that the towering man known as Officer Harrell, was our lead instructor.  He, along with several other instructors, would stress us, mentor us, wear us down physically, build us up mentally and ultimately equip us to go forward and serve the 750,000 residents of DeKalb County, Georgia.  As challenging as those days were, I’ve never laughed so hard and frequently as I did during those 6 months, mostly because of Kennis.  Every day on the early drive into class, half of me dreaded it and the other half couldn’t get there fast enough.  Kennis was not only big in stature, the magnitude of his personality and sense of humor rivaled the Great Wall of China.  He would stand at the podium and keep our attention even when teaching the driest of curriculum.  Equally, during officer survival training, when my nose was bleeding and my ribs were busted from sparring (aka Fight Day), he still had me laughing through the pain. I never saw him lose his temper, not a single frown. When he would laugh, he reminded me of Dick Dastardly’s snickering sidekick, Muttley (1960’s cartoon reference).  Kennis could always get his message on the mark with a perfect mix of seriousness, compassion, and humor.  When I joined the department right out of the Marines, I assumed I would be best suited for SWAT, once I became eligible.  However, after learning that Kennis was formerly a Robbery/Homicide Detective in the Major Felony Unit, I wanted to know more about that special squad.  Why?  Because some voice inside was starting to whisper, “I want to be like him”. 

Dad?

Guys like Kennis are a magnet for those in search of a good role model.  I would see people gravitate to him regardless of their rank or tenure.  After the academy, I was assigned to South Precinct, patrolling Decatur and parts of Southeast Atlanta.  Sometime later, I was ecstatic to learn that Kennis had been promoted to sergeant, and would be assigned to South Precinct as a patrol supervisor.  It was during this time that a 20-year running joke got started.  I don’t remember what moment triggered it, but the joke was that he was my real father.  The stark difference in our physical traits made it that much funnier to us, and we played it to the hilt.  We would see each other around the precinct, or even at functions years later, and I would call him “Pops”, in turn, he would refer to me as “Son”.  He could be talking to the Police Chief, and I would stop and say, “Hey Pops, can you give me some walking around money?”.  He would start laughing like Muttley and usually respond with a witty reply about how I was always such a pain in the neck.  Sometimes, he would just put his arm around me while laughing and say, “Redlinger, You’ve lost your mind”.  I miss those days, and I will surely miss my pretend dad. In a job that often wants to make you cry, it was a Godsend to have uplifting men like Kennis by your side.

Abracadabra

When I first saw Bob Peterson, it was around 1995 when I was a rookie officer at South Precinct.  As a rookie, it was a time to keep my mouth shut and learn as much as I could from the veteran officers around me.  South Precinct had a reputation for having some of the highest crime in Metro Atlanta, which unfortunately impacted the lower-income citizens that resided there. South Precinct was full of colorful characters. Just sitting in roll call as a rookie was entertaining to me, all the reputations, all the personalities. There were interesting stories about street officers, precinct detectives, supervisors and so on. As a new guy, you quickly put faces to the stories. The first thing that stood out about Bob was he was much older than the other officers, and he reminded me of tough-guy actor Charles Bronson.

Bob’s doppelganger, both cool as ice

I thought to myself, “That guy looks cool”. Seems my instincts were spot on as I would later learn that the beloved officer, known to most as “Pappy”, was a Vietnam-era infantry officer and helicopter pilot.  As a rookie trying to prove my worth, it was always great to do something that earned you a precinct or departmental commendation, often read aloud and presented at roll call by the shift sergeant or lieutenant. However, it was just as rewarding when you would get recognition directly from a veteran officer you really respected. I remember the first time I got that praise from Bob Peterson. It just so happened that Bob had responded to a stolen vehicle call and had taken the report. I heard his voice come over the radio to give the BOLO, “All units be on the lookout for a stolen vehicle, Georgia Tag XYZ123”. I was in my police car patrolling near 2nd Avenue in Atlanta when that exact vehicle pulled in front of me as Bob read the tag number over the radio. He might as well finished the transmission with “abracadabra” because the car seemed to magically appear out of nowhere. After a short pursuit, followed by a foot chase through some backyards, I made the arrest and recovered the car. Back at the precinct, Bob patted me on the back and said, “Good job Redlinger”. And just like that, “abracadabra”, I found another role model. The real magic was still to come, literally.

Street Magic

South Precinct was peppered with rundown apartment complexes, tired businesses, sketchy motels, and older homes. The streets were filled with at-risk kids, impacted by violent crime, drugs, gangs, abuse, and so on.  Like Sergeant Joe Friday says in his iconic cop speech to a rookie officer, “And the heartbreak– underfed kids, beaten kids, molested kids, lost kids, crying kids, homeless kids, hit-and-run kids, broken-arm kids, broken-leg kids, broken-head kids, sick kids, dying kids, dead kids.

The Classic Cop Talk

Even when you try to be a proactive officer, you often feel helpless as you respond to 911 calls and stand amid the aftermath. That said, I learned from Bob how you could make a positive impact in these kid’s lives, in addition to rounding up the bad guys that hurt them. Bob could always be found lingering on-scene after a 911 call and talking to kids who gather in the street. Many times I would see him pull up to a group of children, get out of his police car and walk over to them.  Before long, more kids would surround him to see what the commotion and laughter were about.  Bob had a natural talent for building relationships by breaking down barriers with street magic. I would venture to say that before there was David Blaine, there was Bob “Pappy” Peterson. One of the oldest performing arts in the world, Bob’s magic helped make himself and other officers more approachable, more human. Again, that voice whispered, “I want to be like him”. So, I did. I asked Bob about his magic tricks and of course he would not reveal any secrets. However, he gave me the address of a magic shop on Memorial Drive and made a few suggestions for the amateur artist, an easy card trick, some sleight of hand illusions, etc. Before long, I was breaking down walls and building relationships with these kids. It felt good to make them laugh. They would remember me when I returned to their neighborhoods on patrol, run up to the car, and ask to see a magic trick. I would also let them crawl around the inside of the police car and play with the lights and siren. I don’t know who loved it more, them or me. It reminded me of how I grew up around cops.

Police Officer Joe Martin and a young Mohammad Ali

Later in life, I would meet Mohammad Ali and learn that his boxing career got started by a kind-hearted police officer, just like Bob. You can read the full story here. Just a good cop who gave some kid in the street his time and attention. In Ali’s case, that cop was a boxer who coached him all the way to his first amateur fights. I often wonder how many of those South Precinct children Bob helped and inspired. I know for sure he inspired a young rookie officer.

So Shines a Good Deed in a Weary World

You may remember this quote from two places, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and the 1971 movie, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. In the classic movie where Gene Wilder plays the eccentric Willy Wonka, he quietly whispers this statement when Charlie, a poor boy, makes an incredible gesture of kindness instead of cashing in at the cost of his character.

Just like in the real world, genuine gestures are magnified as the quote alludes to. I think these acts shine so bright because it comes directly from the soul. I always felt this soulful kindness from Kennis and Bob over the years and witnessed it given regularly to others. Both of these men chose paths of struggle and sacrifice, choices to help and serve others caught in that weary world. They not only did that, but they did it well. They touched lives with their good deeds and never expected anything in return. Yeah, that’s definitely the kind of stuff role models should be made of. So, to Kennis and Bob, true Paragons and Paladins, with a grateful heart I say, “fair winds and following seas.”


Share this story!