Archive for Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Laid-back country kid’ retires

Lt. John Duncanson leaving sheriff’s department after 32 years

December 17, 2003

John Duncanson didn't know if he'd be leaving the scene in his patrol car or an ambulance.

In the late 1970s, a high-speed car chase out of Tonganoxie ended at a truck stop near the Wyandotte-Leavenworth County line.

"He abandoned the car and ran, then turned with a gun in his hand," said Duncanson, a sheriff's deputy who was chasing him on foot.

"I was prepared," Duncanson said. "He didn't shoot and I didn't shoot -- but it was a standoff there for a minute. That was the closest I ever probably came to facing it."

Today, as Lt. John Duncanson retires from the Leavenworth County Sheriff's Department after 32 years of service, he can smile as he tells that story.

After all, it's adventures like that -- the huge rushes of adrenaline and being in the heat of the action -- that draw men and women to law enforcement.

Duncanson said it's easy to get hooked on the work.

"There's no doubt that the excitement and the adrenaline rush is addictive," he said. "The first time you run with emergency lights and sirens, there's an adrenaline rush."

And Rod Schubert, who retired earlier this year after working 28 years with the sheriff's department, agreed.

"It's the most boring job in the world most of the time," he said. "But we do it for the 40 seconds a year of sheer terror."

The longer officers stay in the field, the more that changes, Duncanson said.

"You slow down and drive more cautiously and even get into the ...," he pauses, smiling as he pantomimes a friendly wave through a car window.

"You become wiser and smarter and the adrenaline rush slows down, but there's no doubt that's a part of the addiction."

The point of law

Last Thursday, Duncanson, and two others who had worked at the sheriff's department -- Thomas Jones and Schubert -- were honored at a retirement ceremony.

Of the three, Duncanson, who has lived in Tonganoxie nearly all his life, has been with the department the longest.

For Duncanson, the work itself kept him interested.

"For me it was the challenge of completing something," Duncanson said. "You take a report, you figure out who did it, you try to prove who did it, you go through the court process and hopefully they get convicted."

But when they didn't, Duncanson said, he tried not to worry about it. After all, he knew he had done his job.

"A lot of officers get very frustrated because they work very hard on a case and because of a technicality they get released," Duncanson said.

In those cases, officers just have to let go.

"A lot of officers are confused -- they think they are there to issue justice," Duncanson said. "Our job is to investigate, capture and detain, and justice comes from the prosecutor and court."

Shades of the Wild West

Duncanson started in the field at 19. He worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, at the Butler County Jail while earning an associate's degree in automotive technology at Butler County Community College.

It rings of the old Wild West when Duncanson talks about the inmates' crimes.

"The biggest things down there were cattle rustling and check laws," Duncanson said. "Those were the two biggest crimes in 1970 and 1971 when I started. There would be hard crime come through, but not near what we see in Leavenworth."

Duncanson and his wife, Nancy -- his high school sweetheart -- stayed in El Dorado while he continued his education at Wichita State University. By then, he was working at the El Dorado police department. He decided to take the police certification course. Technically, he was too young. Duncanson was not yet 21.

"I convinced and coerced and begged the chief to let me take the law enforcement basic training because I thought it would make me more employable when I turned 21," Duncanson said.

He worked the midnight shift as a police dispatcher and attended classes during the day. Duncanson completed the course and turned 21 in the same month.

Soon after, Leavenworth County Sheriff Dan Hawes called Duncanson with a job offer. When he started there in June 1972, he was happy to be back in Tonganoxie and working for Leavenworth County.

"This is my home and I felt, if I was going to be a police officer, I might as well serve the community I grew up in and make it a better place to live," Duncanson said. "That's why I never went to Johnson County or Douglas County or some of the places that paid a little better -- because I felt like I was making the place where my children grew up a little safer, or a little better."

Sound advice

And, at the sheriff's department, Duncanson learned a lesson that has long stayed with him. During his first six months, while working at the county jail, Duncanson was eager to shift to road patrol.

In every minute he could spare -- on his own time -- he rode with Earl Reavis and Wayne Turner. Those hours were valuable.

"Wayne and Earl were the ones that basically taught me law enforcement," Duncanson said. "Wayne was very open and forthright in his instruction."

Duncanson still remembers a specific comment Turner made.

"He said that in any given situation, someone has to be in charge," Duncanson said. "If you want to stay alive, that damn well better be you."

Throughout his career, Duncanson relied on that advice.

"When you started losing control of a situation, I'd always remember Wayne's words, and you gain control of that situation rapidly," he said.

There were instances when Turner's instruction meant doing nothing.

"Sometimes control just means you break away, you lose contact with them and you get more help until you can regain control," Duncanson said.

Wayne Turner said he doesn't specifically recall giving Duncanson that advice, but said he always knew he could rely on Duncanson.

"Somebody's got to take charge," Turner said. "John would."

Advancing career

When Duncanson started working for the county, there were 13 people on staff. He started as jail officer and dispatcher. About six months later, he was put on road patrol. In 1980, Duncanson was promoted to sergeant in the patrol division.

Then, in 1987, when Terry Campbell was sheriff, Duncanson was promoted to lieutenant and switched to jail commander. In 1994, when Herb Nye became sheriff, Duncanson became patrol division commander.

Duncanson had what it took to be good in law enforcement, Nye said.

"He's a very understanding person and he had a lot of common sense," Nye said. "And that's the two elements that make a good police officer."

Leavenworth County undersheriff Dave Zoellner described Duncanson as "a kind and gentle person."

"I think he'll be missed," Zoellner said.

Nye said Sgt. Charlie Yates, who also lives in Tonganoxie, will temporarily fill in for Duncanson as patrol division commander.

Above the rest

Throughout his life, Duncanson has lived with inevitable comments about his height. He is 6-foot-8. As a high school basketball star, he stood above the rest. As a patrol officer, he drove a car with a modified seat so he could stretch out his legs. And as an officer, non-law abiding citizens tended to pay more attention to him.

"He used his size to his advantage in numerous occasions," Nye said.

And Nancy Duncanson, who literally has looked up to her husband for 32 years, said his height has been a continual outlet for Duncanson's keen sense of humor -- especially when people ask him how tall he is.

"He's 5 foot 20 inches tall," Nancy said, laughing. "He always says that."

A whistle away

Nancy, who attended Thursday's retirement reception, said being married to a law officer hasn't always been easy.

"You get up in the middle of the night and he's gone and you have no idea where he's at or when he'll be home," Nancy said.

Throughout the years, Duncanson was always on call, even on holidays.

One of the most rewarding cases, John Duncanson said, occurred at about noon on a Thanksgiving Day. A mother called the county to say her 3-year-old daughter was missing. When he arrived at the rural address, the mother said the family's dog also was missing.

"I went into the woods and whistled for the dog," Duncanson said.

When the dog barked, Duncanson headed in that direction.

"The child was sitting on an open well, crying, and the dog was sitting there with her -- it didn't leave the child, it just barked," Duncanson said.

Holiday plans were virtually uninterrupted.

"I was gone an hour and got back to Thanksgiving dinner," Duncanson said.

Moving on

Now that he's removed from the pressure of his work, Duncanson plans to spend a few months doing nothing.

"I'm just going to take some time off and try to let go of this job," Duncanson said. "To try to start thinking like a normal person."

One of his favorite past times is cutting firewood to heat his house.

"Cutting wood has been my therapy," Duncanson said. "That's one of the things I have enjoyed most in my time off."

And, he learned a long time ago, cutting wood could be a meaningful family activity.

"I really enjoyed it when my son was home and we did it together," Duncanson said. "We spent a lot of time sitting on the tailgate and not getting much wood cut."

And the Duncansons, who were thrilled to become grandparents when Trey Allen Duncanson was born on Dec. 2, plan to spend more time with their families.

Trey lives with his parents, John and Ashley Duncanson, in Canton, Mo.

John and Nancy's daughter, Tiffhany Duncanson and her husband, Dave Huffman, who live in Osage Beach, Mo., are expecting their first child in May.

The thrill of the chase

Richard Ogden, chief of Reno Township Fire Department, has known Duncanson for about 25 years.

And Ogden described Duncanson as "one of the fairest cops I've seen."

"He's just a good old laid back guy, a good old laid back country kid," Ogden said. "He's just a down-to-earth guy."

Turner said Duncanson was the perfect man when it came to tracking suspects on the run. He would try to think the way a suspect would, and he'd continue the hunt long after everyone else quit.

In all of his years in law enforcement, there was little he enjoyed more.

"My favorite things were always the manhunts," Duncanson said. "I'd sit all day waiting on somebody. I used to have a lot of fun doing that -- they'd call off the chase and everybody else would go home, but I'd stay."

And would he catch the person?

Duncanson nods, shows a humble grin, and says simply in his typical unhurried manner: "Oh yeah."

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