09/21/07 — New job, same duty: Mount Olive chief starts work

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New job, same duty: Mount Olive chief starts work

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 21, 2007 1:59 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Ralph Schroeder might have left Wayne County in the late 1970s had a local woman not "stolen" his heart.

He would have moved from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base back to his Ohio hometown.

He would not have recently been named Mount Olive's new police chief.

But the lawman admits that he has dreamed about being one since childhood -- that he was born into the "Dragnet" and "Adam-12" generation -- where a routine game of cops and robbers was seen as preparation for realizing a dream.

So from behind the chief's desk at the Mount Olive Police Department, the 51-year-old will tell you that it must have been fate that brought him to Wayne County in the first place.

In reality, the United States Air Force had a hand in it, too.

Schroeder enlisted shortly after his mother's death and was assigned to Seymour Johnson fresh out of basic training.

It was 1975.

"My mother passed away when I was 17, and I went to live with my aunt and uncle," Schroeder said. "I talked with them about wanting to join the service. I didn't want to go to college just then."

So after his stint in basic at Lackland Air Force Base, he came to Goldsboro as an airman.

"I was assigned to the flight line. We got to tow B-52s, KC-135s and F-4s," he said. "And if they had to go to the shop, we would take them. Let's just say if you had a plane that tore up at the end of the runway, we would be the ones to drive them out there to it -- the mechanics and everyone."

But being a member of the 4th Fighter Wing was not reason enough to keep him from heading back home at the end of his enlistment.

The right woman, though, was.

Schroeder and his wife, Brenda, will celebrate their 30th anniversary next week.

But their love might not ever have been realized.

"This guy who was my sergeant, he had a girlfriend down here," Schroeder said. "So they set me up on a blind date."

The rest, he added, is history.

The two were married a few years later and made their home here.

Schroeder continued his work with the 4th OMS, "playing" with state-of-the-art fighter jets all day long.

"If you have got a bomber sitting out there on the flight line fully loaded and ready to go, you still have to go out there about once a week and pull her forward or move her back, so the tires didn't go flat," he said. "That was always fun."

But he had never dreamed about being a military man.

So in 1979, he left the service to pursue the career he had longed for since boyhood.

Schroeder worked at the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. and Calypso Plywood while he waited for word from the police force.

By the time a job opened up, he felt he was ready to take on the small-town beat.

"I think I grew up a lot in the Air Force," Schroeder said. "I mean, it's a paramilitary organization, the police department is. You had supervisors that were like sergeants in the Air Force were, and the training really helped as far as discipline and stuff like that."

He rode along with a pair of Mount Olive's finest for the first few months.

Since, he has watched the town he loves endure hurricanes, floods and tornados.

It was 1984.

A tornado had just "devastated everything."

"I was at home whenever it hit. It missed my house by about 9/10 of a mile on either side," Schroeder said. "Once it passed, I turned on my radio, and we got called in. There were a lot of things we had to do. We basically didn't go home for 10 days -- slept in the courtroom, showered at the rescue building. It was pretty tough times."

But with every natural disaster, murder or drug deal he witnessed, the town kept its charm, he added -- and gained some.

"There are a lot of good people in Mount Olive," he said. "Sometimes, people in this town get a bad rap because of things that happen, but we are just like any town. You're going to have drug problems, and it's sad to say, but you're going to have murders."

Schroeder thought he had seen it all, or at least a lot.

But he never saw the events that transpired a few weeks ago coming.

The once-dreamer, now police officer, was asked to replace Emmett Ballree as police chief.

"When the town manager asked me if I would be the acting chief, I said I would do it -- that I didn't have a problem doing it," Schroeder said. "Now, was I nervous? Yeah, I was pretty nervous."

Nervous and overwhelmed.

"I was satisfied just being an officer," he added. "If I had never made major, if I had never made captain, it would not have bothered me. Just as long as I was a policeman."

Still, despite his apprehension, he said he could not turn his back on the town he proudly calls home.

"The people in Mount Olive have kept me," he said. "You have to understand, where I grew up, it was a big city but the area I grew up in was a little bit close-knit. People here are like that. They genuinely care about one another."

Schroeder has since been named the full-time chief -- no more "acting" in the job title, town officials said.

And he will do his best to ensure he never lets his neighbors down.

"The way I was trained, those guys told me, 'You have to be able to respect the people you are working with,' and that the only thing I can do is lead by example," Schroeder said. "If I want an officer to go out on the street and talk to people, I need to be doing the same thing. Just because I'm wearing this shirt now doesn't mean I'm not willing to do a crime scene if it comes to that."

And he promises that he will never let a title go to his head -- or let his town succumb to criminals, drugs or storms.

After all, the once-airman knows something about protecting home, especially the one he says has given him so much -- a chance to fall in love, serve his country and realize a boyhood dream.

"I don't want to change. I want to treat people the same way I have always treated them," he said. "And I have confidence in this department. We are going to do the very best for Mount Olive."