There are times when a casual comment changes thousands of lives.
Bedford Police Sgt. Jeffrey Wardwell, who will retire on June 18 after more than 32 years with the department, tells the story. He was working construction a few years out of high school, “laying a sewer pipe in a Cambridge trench.”
A police sergeant on the detail struck up a conversation. “What are you going to do with your life?” Wardwell said he probably would go out when the weekend arrived. The cop explained that he meant longer term, and eventually suggested that a good path for the future could be the civil service examination.
The rest is Bedford history.
Wardwell worked with and advocated for young people throughout most of his decades with the Bedford Police Department. He has been the primary police contact for thousands of students as well as parents, teachers, and administrators.
Early in his career, he succeeded Bob McGrath as juvenile officer, managing the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Program at Lt. Job Lane School. Wardwell said DARE “kind of fizzled out,” but a new door opened: school resource officer.
“I was fortunate to be the high school principal when we introduced the (resource officer) program, and I cannot imagine a better partner than we had in Officer Wardwell,” said Jon Sills, former superintendent of schools. “Compassionate, committed and communicative, Jeff built relationships with students that enriched their lives and created an indispensable layer of safety for our school community.”
A 1981 graduate of Lexington High School, “I was kind of anti-police when I was growing up,” Wardwell confided. He tried a number of things – restaurant work, auto mechanic, a semester at the University of Arizona – before that turning-point conversation at the Cambridge job site.
Wardwell was living on Walsh Road with his brother when he took the civil service test, finishing at the top of the Bedford list. He was interviewed for vacancies by both Fire Chief Kevin O’Toole and Police Chief Donald Eunson before choosing the latter and completing the police academy in 1989.
“I’ve been here for 32 years, but my career spans five different decades,” he pointed out. Some of the kids he meets in the schools are his second generation of the same families. And after all that time, “I love my job here. There haven’t been many negatives. I don’t think I ever wanted to do anything else.”
Wardwell stressed that as resource officer, his role is not enforcement. “I work with the schools, and they handle discipline,” he explained. It’s not a situation comparable to an urban environment. “There are no metal detectors, guns, or knives.”
He said his approach always has been to “figure out what the problem is and come up with a solution. Everything in life should be like that.” And whether in the schools or on patrol, when he senses that de-escalation is required his first request is, “Do me a favor…”
He has responsibilities at all four schools, although at the elementary schools “it’s more of a novelty.” At John Glenn Middle School, and particularly at Bedford High, Wardwell stresses visibility, in the hallways, on the grounds, or when formally speaking to classes. “It’s the best and the easiest job, and the most rewarding,” he asserted, noting that he recalls making only one arrest at a school.
There are unique details in the job description. For a dozen years Wardwell has been among the chaperones for the annual eighth-grade trip to Washington, DC. (and he said teacher Joe Casey has asked him to continue). Sills remarked, “It takes a special person to volunteer to accompany students on overnight retreats, to play morning basketball, to speak with classes of young children, and to check in at the annual bleachers painting.”
Wardwell also is a big fan of BHS athletics, and his signature air-horn blast following a Buccaneer touchdown has become known even at some rival stadiums. “I love being the cheerleader,” he said. The unmistakable sound is generated from air in a scuba tank. Wardwell is stationed on the high school roof because “it’s so loud you don’t want to be near anybody.”
“The best thing about my career is finding out you made a difference,” Wardwell declared. He said he has kept every thank-you card received over the years. “You can write as many tickets as you want, but when you help someone out it makes a difference.”
In recent years Wardwell, a patrol sergeant, has divided his time in the schools and colleagues have shared some of the responsibilities.
One of his most memorable episodes actually took place on patrol. Learning that the Lowell Police Department had circulated a license plate number for a suspect involved in a shooting, Wardwell said he announced, “I’m going to find him.” He drove on Route 3 near the Route 62 interchange, “and less than 60 seconds later he drove by.” Wardwell made the initial stop, and looked clairvoyant.
Wardwell and his wife live in Londonderry, NH. They have three grown children; his son-in-law is Patrolman Tim Pike. “I knew him before my daughter met him,” he noted.
He said he began taking college courses early in his career, and 17 years later completed requirements for a bachelor’s degree. That’s an extreme example, but Wardwell commented that some high school students may choose to bypass the intense college admission process and first figure out possible paths for their lives.
Much about youth culture has changed, Wardwell observed. He doesn’t get calls to break up large gatherings where kids used to figure out what to do; cellphones fulfill the same purpose. He also noted “the attitude of the public with recent events,” remarking that although “there have been mistakes made by officers,” that should be far from a blanket indictment, and Bedford residents understand that.
Wardwell said he has “so many different ideas of what I am going to do” in retirement. He said he expects to be back in Bedford for occasional roadway details. He said he knows one thing that won’t change is “the way you deal with people.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763