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Published: Wednesday, 12/27/2000

Crime fighter leaves tenacious legacy

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bunce: As a police officer, he often saw the ugly side of life. Bunce: As a police officer, he often saw the ugly side of life.
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Some of those who know him best say retiring Maumee police Chief Robert Bunce leaves behind a “pit-bull” legacy - one of a man who fought tirelessly for his employees and fiercely defended his department.

But that description is belied when sitting down with the smiling, avuncular man who has headed the city's police department since 1987.

His handshake is warm and followed by the offer of coffee. His laugh is easy and he'd much rather speak about his wife, children, and grandchildren than the war stories of his career. He boasts about his employees' accomplishments as though they are his own children and chuckles as he recalls his own rookie beginnings.

“My first day of work, I walked in and my training was this book that the chief handed me and said `Here, I want you to read this.'

“Then I walked to city hall, got sworn in, and when I came back the chief handed me a civil defense gun. I didn't even have a holster. The chief turned to another officer and said `Go out and get him six bullets, would you?'

“That was it. I was a cop.”

Thirty-six years after he began a career at a department with just an officer or two on each shift, Chief Bunce oversees 41 sworn personnel and more than a dozen civilians.

These days he's a bit slower and a lot more gray. He pauses and grins when he recalls why he first stepped into a uniform.

“People will think I'm crazy if I tell you the truth, because almost everyone says `I went into police work because I wanted to help people,'” he says. “But I'll tell you: I was just always curious whenever I heard a siren or saw those red lights.

“I just wanted to know what was going on.”

Chief Bunce was born at his parents' home at John and Jackson streets in 1941. His father died when he was 11 and he and his mother later moved to a Perrysburg farm with his new stepfather.

The 1959 Perrysburg High School graduate took some college business courses, but quickly learned he liked neither office work nor number-crunching. He spent three years at a factory and married his first wife. The couple had a son and were adopting a second child when his wife suddenly died of heart problems at age 28.

The 29-year-old single father and now-police sergeant was able to finalize the adoption of the little girl and a few years later he married his current wife, Shelley.

In the meantime, he began to see what the lights and sirens were all about as he patrolled the streets and eventually climbed through the department's ranks.

Police work, he learned, often meant seeing life from ugly angles. There were domestics and thefts and assaults and rapes.

To this day, his first murder - a tiny baby left to die along a river bed - haunts him. The newborn's body was found during the spring thaw. Never identified, her case remains unsolved.

Certainly there were other frustrations too. Occasionally there were flare-ups with city officials, budget struggles, or internal strife. For years he dogged politicians and community leaders - unsuccessfully - for a new police station.

In 1995, Maumee police investigators came under fire when they failed to make an arrest for the murder of Larry Loose, 55, a dishwasher at the Pacific Crab House.

And the same year, a dispute between a married couple - two of his officers - turned into a very public nightmare when police, including the chief, responded to the couple's house one night during a quarrel. Sgt. Ellen Columber alleged she was physically assaulted by one of the responding officers. She sued, was fired, then rehired.

But for the most part - by far, for the most part, says the chief - he has enjoyed his tenure and is proud of his accomplishments.

That new station he has requested so many times? Council members say they will take up the issue first thing next year.

And the police force that 36 years ago could give the rookie Bunce only a hand-me-down civil defense gun and a handbook for training? Today, officers and local leaders say Chief Bunce has been a tenacious fighter for the best of everything for his officers - from cars to computers to guns to the latest training.

“If he believes in something, he's a pitbull,” said Council President Kevin Olman. “He's a stone. He's direct. But he's compassionate, too. That's exactly what you want in a leader.”

Lt. Robert Zink, a nearly 24-year employee of the department, agreed.

“He's not a micromanager but he keeps his fingers on the pulse of what's going on,” he said. “When he asks a question, he wants to know that you're on top of things.”

In retirement, Chief Bunce will be heading out March 31 to spend more time with his family and to travel along the historic Route 66.

“It has been fun,” he said of the career prompted long ago by red lights and sirens.

“You know, you're in the middle of the action, but at the same time, you can express your humanity,” he said. “You end up helping people, holding someone's bloody head, being there at a widow's home to offer comfort.

“Plus,” he grins, after a brief pause: “It's always fun putting the bad guys in jail.”



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