20 Years Later: Lieutenant Gordon Smith Reflects on Policing

Gordon Smith remembers his father telling him that, when Gordon was little, he always wanted to be a police officer. His career took some unexpected turns, eventually culminating in him becoming a lieutenant with the West Goshen Police Department. 20 years after Gordon’s retirement, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about life as an officer.

Despite his childhood dreams of joining the police force, Gordon first joined the United States Army after graduating high school. When he left the military in 1953, he worked at a paper mill until a friend showed him an ad in the newspaper calling for potential police force employees. On March 9, 1957, Gordon became a West Chester police officer. Nine years later, he started work at the West Goshen Police Department.

Gordon’s retirement from the force 20 years ago was on his 65th birthday, a family tradition. “I come from a family of 10,” Gordon described, “and my father, who worked in a paper mill, always told me he would retire on his 65th birthday. I used to laugh. But, he did retire on his birthday. February 4th. My older sister’s husband also retired on his 65th birthday. I said, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

But just because Gordon is retired doesn’t mean he’s not busy. In his life, he has visited every state except Hawaii. He worked as Chairman of the National Election Committee from 1965 until 2015 and he currently works as the financial secretary for the Fraternal Order of Police in Chester County.

“It was just the right thing to do,” Gordon said, explaining why he took these positions. “It’s right to help as many people as I can. I’ve had so many young people come up to me and say, ‘Excuse me, sir, thank you so much for all you’ve done.’ It’s a great feeling.”

You see, for Gordon, policing isn’t all about arresting citizens—he sees enforcing the law as part of the job, just as it’s part of the job to help pass on life lessons to others. While there is no specific part about being a police officer that was more rewarding than another, Gordon remembered his greatest accomplishment as a young officer in the late 1950s.

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Gordon’s Favorite Memory:

One time, when I was still a West Chester cop, we had a series of burglaries in Miller’s Welding Shop on Market Street. I went there and talked to them and the shopkeeper said the person was breaking in the back and stealing scrap metal.

I made arrangements with the owners that I would stake the place out. I went at 6pm and sat there. It was winter. I sat up front in the chair in the dark. Half an hour later, I heard a crash of the window breaking.

I picked up the office phone and dialed the police station; we arrested him in the office. He was coming there to steal the change in the cash register and the scrap metal that they would leave by the door, and he was going to take it to the junkyard and sell it.

I got into the station and sat down and talked to him. In his young days, he had been a college professor. Then he got to drinking and became an alcoholic. He was stealing scrap out of their shop and taking it to the junkyard and selling it for money to buy wine.

The first thing I did was get him connected to an attorney friend of mine from Alcoholics Anonymous. I got him on the wagon again. Then I checked in with the attorney a while later and they said they got him back to being re-certified to teach.

Five years later, after I came to the West Goshen Police Department, I got a call from the chief saying that the man I’d arrested had called me. He was a professor in Glassboro, NJ, at what is now Rowan University. He was also in charge of the Alcoholics Anonymous group for students.

So, he asked me if I could come down and talk to his group. I went down there and had dinner with him and then went to his meeting. He started the meeting by saying, “I want to introduce you to my friend who is not an alcoholic.”

Then he stood there and told the story of how he met me, and he ended by saying, “I never went to jail. He and his friend looked out for me—they got me back into AA, and I haven’t had a drink since. But I was a criminal, and I deserved to get arrested. Instead, he saved my life.”

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It was a proud moment for Gordon, but it was just one of many. Still, as he puts it, “If I never helped anybody else in my life, I did my duty as a police officer.” He doesn’t see it as overly altruistic. Really, he feels it’s just part of the job. “It was something I thought needed to be done,” Gordon says. “He needed somebody to look out for him.”

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