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By M.E. Jones

Correspondent

SHIRLEY — When Paul Thibodeau joined the Shirley Police Department as a patrol officer in 1976, the town was very different.

There were over a dozen clubs and bars and Shirley had a track record of barroom brawls, alcohol- and drug-related crimes and hundreds of arrests and auto accidents per year.

There were 10 drug arrests on a single Saturday night, Thibodeau recalled.

“It was a tough place,” he said.

Fort Devens was in full-swing back then and nightspots lined Route 2A, from Ayer to Lunenburg. “Every weekend I worked, I planned to get beat up,” Thibodeau said. “As a rule, I did.”

He recalled an arrest he made at the Franklin Club, (which was the Stanley Club before that) and a woman dancing at the Mohawk Club with a knife in her hand.

Thibodeau made his first felony arrest at Paul’s Bar, later the Brookside Tavern. That was in January 1977.

“A guy was threatening the owner with a sawed-off shotgun,” he said. “That was scary. Fortunately, he dropped it when I told him to.”

Although he’s often had his gun at the ready, he seldom had to point it at anyone, he said. One exception was a domestic disturbance at a house where Bemis Associates is now, by the railroad tracks. The house had a porch. “A little woman came out with a Garand, a WWII-era repeating rifle,” he said. “Fortunately, she dropped it and I arrested her.”

In those days, there were 10 full-time officers and a few part-timers. Officers were all EMTs and until 1982 the Police Department served as ambulance crew. “We drove International Harvester Travel-Alls that were ambulances, too,” he said, describing vehicles that looked like the tricked-out station wagon in the movie “Ghost Busters.”

Ansen Saball was the police chief when he was hired, Thibodeau said. Norman Albert was on the Board of Selectmen.

Shirley was his second job as a police officer.

Thibodeau started his career in Concord as a cadet after graduating from Northeastern University. His first job, via the school’s co-op program, was as a janitor at the Old Mill restaurant in Westminster.

“The economy wasn’t so hot then, either,” he said.

His education promised better, he said, but the job wasn’t bad and he liked the folks he worked for. During the year he was on the Concord Police Department, he worked with an officer who would later become Pepperell’s police chief.

Then the job opened up in Shirley, and he’s been here ever since.

During his tenure, the first crack cocaine raid in the county took place in Shirley, on Holden Road.

“It was like the Wild West,” he said. “The town has changed 180 degrees for the better” since then. “It’s a bedroom community now.”

There’s been a lot of development since his early days on the job, Thibodeau said, rolling through an itinerary of dirt roads and former woods now dotted with houses.

Lawton Road led to Crow Farm and the power lines. There were no side roads off Clark, and Squannacook had just a handful of houses, with none on Townsend Road. Anything after that was “the outback,” he said. Acorn Park on Ayer Road was a field, part of Farrar’s farm, and the area that now houses the municipal complex was part of the Army base.

Thibodeau, who grew up in Fitchburg and Lunenburg, said his father served in the Army during the Korean war and was discharged from Devens.

He doesn’t claim a lifelong dream of becoming a cop, but it was the right decision, he said.

Police work can put stress on family life, but not his. Married for 32 years, he has two grown sons.

One, an ROTC graduate, has served in the Army for 20 years and completed two tours in Iraq. He’s in Germany now, aiming for the rank of major.

The other son is a police detective in another town.

When it came to advice, Thibodeau said he told his son the truth. It’s not a lucrative job. Holidays and the hours of the day mean nothing. A police officer never gets cold, hungry, wet or tired. Your feelings don’t count.

“You can’t show temper and your mood doesn’t matter,” he said. And you can’t “whack someone” just because you feel bad.

Humor in uniform

“I never had second thoughts,” he said. “I’ve always been happy” in the job. It’s like the TV commercial says, “a front row seat to the greatest show on earth.” And he never had days when he didn’t want to come to work.

Thibodeau has a wry sense of humor and presents an unflappable front. But he acknowledges some dark moments. Two officers shot on the job. Fatalities, some of them on the railroad tracks. Children killed in accidents. “It’s tough when it’s kids,” he said. “I’ve been thinking, I’ve seen two generations grow up.”

He’s also seen a shift since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It will never be the same,” he said. “We found out the country is vulnerable.” Citizens will look to police if it happens again, and officers must be ready. These days, the department has equipment such as gas masks, automatic rifles and chemical suits, as well as specialized training, Thibodeau said.

After the attacks, he kept a barrel out front for awhile, in case anyone received mail with powder in it. It was never used. “You plan for the worst, hope for the best,” he said.

Thibodeau doesn’t live far from the town where he works, but as a non-resident, he’s removed enough for privacy. For recreation, he plays golf and runs. Not marathons, though. He runs the Army 10-miler in Washington, D.C.

In 1996, Thibodeau was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent treatment for a year but seldom took much time off. Still, he wasn’t at full strength during that time. “The staff picked up a lot of the work,” he said. “A good department makes life easier.”

Today, the Police Department has seven full-time officers, four part-time officers and eight dispatchers, full- and part-time. When he started, there were no dispatchers in Shirley. “We dispatched from Groton,” he said. And there was no 911.

Now, the department has a sophisticated “enhanced 911” system that can pinpoint a caller’s location, even if the call comes from a cell phone.

Thibodeau was appointed police chief in 1986, when then-chief Enrico Cappucci quit to take a similar job in Duxbury.

After 33 years with the same department, Thibodeau has no regrets but he’s ready to move on. “The town of Shirley has been good to me,” he said.

After he leaves April 3, he won’t look back, he said.

What’s next? Thibodeau plans to turn a part-time job he’s had for some time into a second career, as a truck driver. “I have a CDL license,” he said.

Asked what he’ll miss about this job, he mulled the question for a moment. “I suppose everything,” he said.