It was during a harrowing combat tour in Vietnam that Randy Pennington, as a young man praying through his fear in the middle of war, dedicated his life to helping others.
“I prayed and prayed. I had a helicopter blown right out from under me. And I said, ‘If I can make it through this nonsense,’ praying, ‘I will spend the rest of my life helping people,’” Pennington told the Chronicle. “I think I’ve done that. I hope.”
Indeed, Pennington survived Vietnam, came home and made good on his promise.
He retired earlier this month at the age of 71 after 36 years as a reserve officer and sergeant for the Toledo Police Department.
“I'm going out in the upright position. Can’t ask for more than that,” Pennington said.
His career as a reserve officer “kind of started as a fluke, to tell you the honest truth,” Pennington told The Chronicle this week.
After he returned from multiple U.S. Army combat tours in Vietnam, Pennington worked as a firefighter and paramedic in Tacoma before taking a job as a 911 dispatcher. His experience as a paramedic and firefighter aided him well in dispatching those calls, but he had little experience working on the police side of 911 calls. So, when a deputy offered to take him on a ridealong, Pennington agreed to go.
“What a learning experience for a dispatcher … It’s so important for a 911 dispatcher to realize they are the unseen partner for that cop in that our lives depend on (them), so that was an eye-opening experience,” Pennington said.
Former Winlock police chief Forrest “Mac” McPherson later invited Pennington to attend the reserve academy as a way to get information and insight into the work police officers do, which Pennington figured would make him a better dispatcher.
But when he graduated from the academy, Pennington found he liked the work and wanted to continue.
He left his job with 911 dispatch in 1992 and was quickly hired as a reserve officer for the Napavine Police Department. He stayed there for a year before moving over to the Toledo Police Department, where he has been for the last 36 years.
Reserve officers are unpaid, so for 20 or so years after leaving 911 dispatch, Pennington drove a flatbed lumber truck Mondays through Thursdays and drove the police car on the weekends.
The last year he worked full time driving the lumber truck, Pennington said he put in 2,100 hours as a patrol officer.
“I've met wonderful people, wonderful people,” he said of his career as a reserve officer. “And it's not about arresting somebody. I try to tell these new cops … if you want to do it simply because you want to arrest somebody, go find another job. It's about helping people. Sometimes you help them by arresting them.”
Pennington recalled multiple times when someone under arrest asked for Pennington specifically to take them in, because they knew him and trusted him, he said.
In one instance, he recalled advising a man he had arrested to talk to a chaplain and, years later, he learned the man had taken Pennington’s advice and turned his life around.
“Every now and then you get lucky and make a difference. And that’s the only reason I ever did it,” Pennington said.
He recalled a saying that former Toledo Police Chief Bert Morri said when Pennington was starting out with the department.
“I didn't realize the wisdom of it until years later. He said, ‘Not everybody can be a cop. Not every cop can be a small town cop.’ And he is so correct. Not taking anything away from deputies or troopers or anybody else, but it takes a different mindset to be a small town cop,” Pennington said.
For Pennington, being a small town cop means getting to know his constituents on a first-name basis, learning whose car is supposed to be in whose driveway, who normally keeps their lights on in the middle of the night and, as was too-often the case, picking up the phone when someone calls him for a 2 a.m. emergency instead of 911.
“Not many of them knew me as Sergeant Pennington. The kids call me grandpa or ‘officer Randy,” he said of residents in Toledo. “The downside to that is trying to educate people, ‘When you need a cop, don’t call me! Call 911!’” said Pennington, adding: “It frustrates a lot of deputies and firemen. It frustrates me. I understand why they do it. I am their cop.”
Aside from the minor frustrations, the community connections he made on the job brought a lot of joy to Pennington.
They also brought heartbreak.
“I don't know how many times I've had to call the coroner for somebody that I knew very well. Or had to hold them because their child drowned in the river,” Pennington said.
But Pennington said it was all worth it for the chance to help the community.
“Where else can you go on duty and still carry groceries in for an old lady? You can’t do that in Tacoma, you can’t do that in Seattle,” he said. “I enjoy helping people. And that was a way to help people.”
His dedication to helping others wasn’t limited to his constituents. He frequently took on-call shifts from Toledo’s two paid officers so they could have a break after their regular shifts.
“If you're the officer that's on call and you go home at five o'clock at night, you can't have a beer and watch the football game. When you're on call, you can't do any of it. You can't take your wife shopping, can't do anything … And I would just call dispatch and say ‘put me on call, leave them alone.’”
Pennington said the job was trying for his wife, Carrie, but her 30 years of experience working with the Winlock Fire Department gave her a unique understanding of Pennington’s position.
“I can't think of a more stressful career on a relationship, a cop or a fireman. And so I was always blessed that she knew. She didn’t like it, but she knew,” he said.
Pennington’s retirement from the police department means the couple will get to spend more time at their favorite beach spot in Lincoln City, Oregon.
But Pennington is by no means done with community service in Lewis County. He still has two more years left on his term as a Winlock fire commissioner and he intends to continue volunteering in Winlock schools, where Carrie Pennington previously worked as an elementary school teacher.
When asked if he had any parting words for Toledo as he ends his career as Officer Randy, Pennington said, “Find someone you can help. Help someone. If it's just helping your neighbor cut their grass. If it's just helping a lady carry the groceries to the car, do something to help. We have such a society today that's forgot that, I think. We can all do something to help somebody. I'm not special. Anybody can do it.”
One final piece of advice?
“What I’d like to say is ‘call 911.’”