Transforming rather than retiring: Police Chief John Schlaf prepares to start his next career
by Mike Kroll
Over the last four decades many things have changed in Galesburg, but John Schlaf has been one of the constants. In 1967 Schlaf was a young air force veteran who had returned to his hometown seeking a direction in life. He had already tried a few jobs but was in search of a career when he applied and was hired as a Galesburg police patrolman. At the end of June Schlaf will “retire” just short of 40 years later and after a 17-year stint as police chief. That “retirement” will be brief; Schlaf assumes the position of Security Director for Knox College in July. The man who has served just about every role possible in the Galesburg Police Department (excepting maybe D.A.R.E. Officer), beat throat cancer, remodeled a proud old Galesburg house and began investing in downtown real estate just before the O.T. Johnson’s fire is a somewhat reluctant story subject.
I sat down with Schlaf at his dining room table Monday evening expecting to conduct a short interview and get to the Galesburg City Council meeting before the predictably prolonged public hearing concluded. It was well after 11:30pm before I stepped off his porch and headed home for the night, the city council meeting long over and my original plan for the interview in tatters. I planned to feature tales of the interesting cases of Schlaf's career and the unique and intriguing characters he came to know but by evening end we merely had a candid and meandering conversation that I believe both of us were sorry to see come to an end. Unfortunately, my digital recorder pooped out early and, frankly, my notes were less than professionally complete. The details of some of the stories are sketchy but the resulting general portrait is nevertheless fascinating.
Schlaf grew up a child of a different time in Galesburg and America. His father worked for the railroad and the block of Blaine Avenue he grew up on “had the greatest concentration of kids in town.” Children grew up differently then with apparently less smothering supervision despite hundreds of pseudo-parents. It was a social system that accepted kids behaving as kids, allowed plenty of unscheduled free time and the freedom to fill that time with childhood experiences including the opportunity to occasionally stumble along with forgiveness for most mistakes. “My childhood wasn't much different from that of most of the kids I knew growing up — and probably much like yours,” quipped Schlaf. “As kids we were curious to the point of being nosy and that sometimes got us into trouble. I remember exploring just about every building in downtown Galesburg as a kid including roofs, basements and other places kids just weren't supposed to spend time. I had my misadventures and interaction with the police for stupid kid stuff but nothing exceptional.”
He completed a military stint in the Air Force during the 1960s as an intelligence analyst but he doesn't volunteer many specifics about what that job entailed other than to credit it for his initially rapid rise within the GPD. It was a turbulent time in America when Schlaf became a young patrolman in 1967 but he only held that post for a year before becoming an investigator, the GPD equivalent of a detective. It was during that short stint as a patrolman that Schlaf did his first stint as a Knox College employee.
“The college administration had a lot of security concerns and feared troublemaking by outsiders coming on the campus, particularly at night. They wanted some extremely low-key police presence in the library in the evenings, just in case. So a small number of young cops were hired to work 'undercover' in the Library as 'reserved book library aides.' We stayed behind a counter with lots of books put on reserve by professors for student use on request. At first I felt pretty uncomfortable but figured hey, I can do that.”
Schlaf and the others were under strict orders not to disclose who they really were but, as you might suspect, the “real” students picked up on the charade pretty quickly. “I think the students who worked in the Library at night had us pegged within the first 15 or 20 minutes,” chuckled Schlaf, “it probably took the other students maybe twice as long to figure out who we were.” He says it was a great experience that ultimately taught him one of the most valuable lessons as a young cop.
“I got to know a lot of students pretty well while I worked at the Library but there was one young woman named Kathy that I worked closely with and we spoke openly about a lot of things. She wasn't much of a fan of police and told me a story to explain why.” Kathy and a boyfriend had been in the kitchen of a Knox fraternity house one night when suddenly some guy ran excitedly into the back door and disappeared upstairs. He was followed shortly by a “Nazi-like” Galesburg cop who was blond, six foot two and arrogant as all get-out according to her story. The cop turned to the couple and demanded to know where the guy went. Kathy and her boyfriend told him they didn't know what he was talking about, they hadn't seen anybody “and that cop gave her a cold stare that cemented her assessment of him forever as a storm trooper” before he walked away to search the frat house.”
Schlaf says he tried hard to convince Kathy that she had been too quick to jump to conclusions about this cop. “I told her that if she had a real chance to meet him and talk with him she would find out he wasn't at all what she thought, but she would have none of that. I told her I knew the cop she was speaking of and he wasn't anything like she described. I got absolutely nowhere with Kathy until I told her that in fact she had already met this cop under other circumstances, I was sure of it. Finally I told her that he was me despite the fact that I was neither blond nor six foot two.”
The incident had occurred months before when Schlaf was in a patrol car southbound on West Street. As he approached the Knox campus he saw some female students sunbathing on the grass (cops are supposed to be observant after all) but he was also shocked to see a young man laying on his belly behind a garage and aiming a rifle in the general direction of these girls. In an era of unusual violence, Schlaf was galvanized into immediate action. He pulled his squad car over quickly and jumped to to run toward the man with a rifle. The man must have seen Schlaf because he took off and ran right into the back door to that fraternity house.
“At the time, we wore helmets with the little plastic visors rather than the more typical caps of today. When I ran into that frat house I was sure I had prevented a tragedy and was determined to catch the guy with a gun. I was flabbergasted that the first two students I see in the kitchen would say they hadn't seen the gunman run into the house just before me. How could they not see that it was in their own best interest to help me find him before he hurt somebody? But they looked at me with utter contempt, especially the girl. I can clearly remember the entire incident to this day. Why I choose to turn and go upstairs to look for him I really just don't know but, fortunately, I eventually found him breathing heavy in the second or third room I checked upstairs. When I confronted him I demanded to know just what he had been doing. Where was his rifle.”
As it turned out the rifle was a pellet rifle and the boy had been shooting cans behind the garage. He ran because he assumed he had violated some city or campus code by shooting the cans and Schlaf must have looked pretty fearsome as he took off after the boy. Both Kathy and Schlaf had jumped to totally wrong conclusions about the other during the incident due to incomplete and misleading information. “We both learned a valuable lesson that things are often not as they seem at first. You need to keep an open mind and avoid jumping to conclusions with inadequate information. I think that incident was key to my development as a good police officer.”
Schlaf spent the next four years as an investigator, “perhaps some of the best years of my career.” As a small city Galesburg doesn't experience crime the same way that say a Chicago or New York City does but difference has always been in quantity rather than variety. The chief is the first to admit that just about every imaginable type of crime has occurred at one time or another in Galesburg. “We are pretty fortunate that violent crime is comparatively rare in town although we do seem to see periodic spurts. Most of our investigations have focused on property crimes.” The relatively low rate of local crime coupled with a small investigative unit has afforded two bonuses to the GPD. “Typically a crime being investigated in Galesburg gets the attention of the entire group of investigators rather than being assigned to just one or two detectives and we doggedly pursue solutions long after larger city police forces are forced to turn their investigative attention elsewhere. On a violent crime especially, we generally don't give up on an investigation until we solve the case.”
The chief is proud of the demonstrably low rate of crime in Galesburg and bothered by the frequent misperception by the public. “The very nature of crime reporting seems to lead people to presume crime is much more prevalent than it really is.” You can see this point in the recently busy weeks for the GPD. “It is my job as police chief not only to prevent crime and catch criminals but also to make you as a citizen feel safe in Galesburg. Creating the sense of safety may be the most difficult task of all.”
When Schlaf begins his second stint as a Knox College employee in July, this goal will be even more important to his success. Schlaf's deft handling of the murder of a Knox coed just a few years ago by a fellow student may have gone a long way toward his getting hired as Security Director. He was widely lauded for how well he explained the investigation to the Knox community and reassured people that things were under control. Schlaf is cool under pressure and appreciates the need to communicate where many in law enforcement stonewall. Even when investigations haven't gone well or his Galesburg officers stumbled, Schlaf has done a good job handling not only the media but his colleagues and bosses in City Hall as well.
As the Galesburg economy suffered in recent years, Schlaf's department has been perhaps the only city department to escape most budgetary paring. The Galesburg police have not only acquired a variety of new equipment they have also maintained personnel levels while nearly every other city department saw cuts — some significant. Perhaps more than most of the city's middle managers, Schlaf has managed to maintain the confidence of both the city council and the city manager without kowtowing to either. Things haven't always been smooth but somehow John Schlaf always manages to land on his feet when confronted by challenges. It is quite likely that it will be these political and public relations skills as much as his police experience that will help Schlaf be a success at Knox College. His carefully guarded collection of stories will have to wait for another time.