SHIRLEY — Friends, family, former colleagues and fellow police officers gathered Tuesday morning at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church to pay tribute and bid a final farewell to former Shirley Police Chief Paul Thibodeau, who died on Thursday.
He was 64.
The funeral mass, officiated by St. Anthony’s Pastor, Edmond Derosier, was both solemn and poignant, amid apt gospel readings, prayers and ceremonies, Father Derosier shared memories of his old friend, whom he met more than two decades ago.
New to the parish then, the priest, who later became chaplain for Thibodeau’s department, encountered the police chief at his desk in the “old dark” police station. The chief’s greeting was guarded, he said.
He introduced himself, but was met with silence.
“I came to offer my services,” Derosier told him.
“You don’t want a favor…to get John off?” Thibodeau asked. “Who…is John?” the priest responded. “The conversation improved after that,” he said.
In their last exchange, Derosier said Thibodeau told him what to say about him at the funeral. “Nothing.”
Despite this admonition, Derosier had plenty to say about Thibodeau, his decency, sense of honor and love of his family, among many other attributes. And his faith, which he struggled with but always held onto, Derosier said.
Thibodeau was Shirley’s police chief for over twenty years, from 1987, when he was promoted to chief, to his retirement in 2009. Judging from the packed church Tuesday morning, he touched many lives.
When he joined the department as a patrolman, Thibodeau worked for former Shirley Police Chief Enrico Cappucci, who left to become chief in another town and recommended Thibodeau to take his place, having already promoted him during his tenure.
Now retired and a former selectman, Cappucci praised Thibodeau’s job performance and character.
“He was a gentleman, a fine, decent man,” he said. “He did a great job for this town as our police chief.”
During his two plus decades as chief, Thibodeau earned the respect and admiration of the whole department, said his former secretary, Anne-Marie Dion Whiting. Now retired, she worked for the Shirley police for more than 28 years and for three successive chiefs after Thibodeau left.
He was her favorite boss, she said, the one she became closest to and for whom she worked the longest.
“There was such a sense of pride to be under his command, part of his troop,” Whiting said. “I enjoyed going to work…every single day.”
Whiting recalled quips, quotes, quirks, how Thibodeau would chat with his officers in the garage and take them for cruiser rides, for one.
“You drive,” he’d say.
It was not an invitation they could refuse.
Whiting’s nephew, a police chief in Durham, NH, once interned under Thibodeau and picked up the practice, which he now uses himself, she said.
According to retired Shirley Police Sgt. Dale Prentiss, who was one of the first patrol officers Thibodeau hired after becoming chief, there was a professional purpose behind those drives.
When the chief said “Let’s go for a ride,” it was usually to “clear something up,” he said, and the clue as to how serious the subject was might be in his form of address.
He had nicknames for his officers, Prentiss said.
“He called me Beave,” for his short, beaver-like haircut. Or he might say, “Hey slick.”
“If he called you by your rank,” it might be a different story, he said.
Those rides were key to Chief Thibodeau’s management style.
“It was his way,” Prentiss said.
He could also be very direct and he didn’t waste time.
On one occasion, with the chief at the wheel, he and Prentiss rode together to confront the suspect in a stabbing incident. Prentiss was the investigating officer. The suspect had turned himself in at the Leominster police station and was in lockup there. Arriving in short order, Thibodeau sized up the prisoner and cut to the chase.
“So, are you the stabber?” he asked.
Prentiss said he did a double take, hoping someone had advised the kid of his rights. No problem, it turned out.
“He said yes,” Prentiss recalled.
Thibodeau was direct with is officers, too. He promoted Prentiss, despite his stated intent to stay a patrolman.
“He said he wanted me to be his corporal,” Prentiss said. “I told him they don’t have them here.”
Thibodeau’s reply: “They do now.”
Eventually, he was promoted to sergeant, Prentiss said, and he held that rank until his early and reluctant retirement at age 42, after being shot in the line of duty.
Prentiss said Thibodeau’s support then was rock solid, a friend as well as his chief.
His injuries were severe and when he woke from the induced coma he’d been in for 10 days at the hospital, the chief was at his bedside, Prentiss said. Hooked up to monitors, speech circumscribed by a breathing tube, and he struggled to speak. He wanted to know about the shooter.
“Did I kill the guy?”
Anticipating the question, the chief leaned in to catch it.
“No, you didn’t kill him,” he said.
“I was relieved,” Prentiss said.
Then Thibodeau added with dry humor: “But…you will need driver training when you get out of here…you’ve ruined three cruisers.”
Two of the cars the chief referred to were damaged when Prentiss accidentally backed his cruiser into another patrol car, he said. The third was the car he hunkered behind during the shoot-out, which took several hits as Prentiss traded gunfire with the suspect.
Known as a “working chief” who ran his department “by the book,” Thibodeau had strict standards of conduct but he could be witty, Prentiss said.
No matter what, “we were still friends,” he said. It made it even harder to leave his job, he said.
Former Police Chief Greg Massak worked for Thibodeau for his entire tenure as chief and was his pick to take over when he retired. After serving as acting chief for a year, Massak became chief and stayed on for four more years before retiring himself. During that period, he often called his former boss for advice and it was always freely given, he said.
“He was really tough…he expected 110 percent and that made us all better officers,” Massak said.
Current Shirley Police Chief Sam Santiago, who succeeded Massak, also turned to Thibodeau for advice.
Hired in 2003, he worked for him for six years, Santiago said, earning the rank of sergeant during that time.
“I will be forever grateful to him,” he said.
“He was a strict chief but fair.” Santiago said of Thibodeau, noting two advisories from his former boss that he still adheres to. First, “Don’t do anything to embarrass the department or the town.” Second, “As chief, go to all Town Meetings, whether there’s a police matter on the warrant or not.”
“He was stern, but he’d joke,” Chief Santiago continued. “He always expected that you do your job.”
Paul Thibodeau leaves his wife of 43 years, Rosemary; two sons, Lt. Colonel Stephen P. Thibodeau and Lunenburg Police Detective Jeffrey M. Thibodeau and their wives and five grandchildren.