Ask Chief Don Engler about his last 36 years of service to the Payson Police Department and he’ll go on and on about the community he served and the people he served with.
Then there’s that one case.
“I had one gentleman, he’d just got out of prison that day and he made his way to Payson,” said Engler. “The next day he looked me up, shook my hand and thanked me for sending him to prison. Said he was going to the northern part of the West to start a new life.”
Engler has since checked up on him.
“He’s still on that path. You wouldn’t believe the confrontations we had — and now to know he has a successful life ... if you can get each one of them to have that success story ...,” his voice trailed off.
Engler’s wife Sherry said more than once former criminals stopped Engler.
“Countless times when Don and I are out and about someone Don has arrested or had dealings with will stop us, converse with us, shake Don’s hand, thank him, give him an update on their progress and tell him to ‘Be careful out there,’” she said.
Engler spent more than an hour with the Roundup talking about what it’s meant to him to serve this little mountain community as he prepares for the next phase of his life — retirement.
Ask family and friends and one word describes Engler: service.
“My whole goal here was service to the community,” said Engler. “It is so much more than being the arresting officer. There are so many other times you have to be a counselor and all these different things to solve problems.”
Craig Swartwood, former mayor and longtime resident, said he was always impressed with Engler’s work ethic.
“Anyone can say anything they want about Don, but the biggest thing about him is that he cared for the people who worked for him and the people of this community,” he said.
Current mayor Tom Morrissey, a retired chief deputy U.S. marshal, gave Engler high praise.
“In law enforcement when someone says, ‘they would go through a door with someone,’ that is the highest compliment one officer can pay another,” said Morrissey. “I would go through any door, any time with Chief Don Engler.”
It might surprise some that Engler is only the fourth police chief since Payson incorporated in 1973.
The former chiefs were Forrest Hinderliter; Dave Wilson, the dome at high school is named after him; Gordy Gartner and Engler, who started on the force in 1984 and took over the top spot in 2007.
Instead of working in a large metropolitan area, Engler preferred Payson as he grew up in the small town of Bowie, Ariz. near the Mexico border by the Chiricahua National Monument.
Engler’s father made a living working on the railroad. Engler met his wife of 40 years in Bowie.
“We actually went to high school together,” he said. “Her dad moved her family there when she was starting her junior year in high school.”
But they didn’t connect until they’d both gone off to college.
“We saw each other at a basketball game and we started to date,” he said.
By 19, they were married, but that didn’t stop them from finishing college. Sherry went to the University of Arizona. Engler attended Grand Canyon University where he got an undergraduate degree in public administration and a master’s in business.
His two children followed him into law enforcement, although he swears he never pushed them in that direction.
Brandyce, 36, and Donald, 31, each went to Arizona State University.
His daughter told him when she started ASU, “I’m going to take some college courses in criminal justice, but I’m not going to be a cop.”
Now she’s a sheriff’s deputy in Beckham, Okla., married and has a son.
His son Don Jr. “always had an interest in it,” said Engler.
Don Jr. graduated with a degree in criminal justice from ASU and works for the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. He is also married and has two daughters.
Having their children in law enforcement gave Sherry concern.
“Being a mother to law enforcement officers is truly a different perspective than that as a wife. One day all three of my LEOs (law enforcement officers) were on dangerous calls, all in different areas. Needless to say, prayers kept me strong until I heard from them individually that they were Code 4, all was OK,” she said.
With the mix of ASU and UofA graduates, Engler said he serves as the “referee” during the annual ASU vs. UofA football game.
Engler credits his family for selflessly supporting him in a job that is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“When we go to Walmart, half of it ends up being work,” he said.
Sherry, a published author, remembered one shopping trip in particular.
“One of the humorous stories I tell in “Living with LEO: Law Enforcement Officer” in regards to living with a police chief as a husband is when I tell about him going to a home improvement store in his old, worn out work clothes and I hear a lady whisper to her husband, “I think that is the chief of police!” and her husband corrects her sternly saying, “That is not the chief of police. Sometimes, I don’t know how you get soooo confused.”
The job affected family vacations.
“Law enforcement has an invisible radar; law enforcement always detects when we are on vacation. This is expected and we just roll with the unexpected. The most consistent element of living with law enforcement is the inconsistencies,” said Sherry.
Holidays were squeezed in-between schedules.
“Some of our birthdays were hilarious,” said Sherry. “One of my birthdays we did in four and a half minutes. We’re opening packages and eating cake and singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and then he had to run out the door.”
Despite the demands, Engler says he has fond memories serving Payson.
“I admire the next generation growing up and coming to law enforcement,” said Engler. “The challenges they will face — the laws are becoming more complex, and our social environment makes it more challenging to enforce the laws. (The officers) are here to serve the community. I’ve been proud of these officers ... they have that servant’s heart to go out and service the community, the people they lived with every day.”
For Sherry, it’s more personal.
“Life for the wife of a police chief doesn’t get better than this; to know the appreciation the citizens of Payson have for him and the law enforcement community,” she said.