Thu, July 18

Commentary: Community, people were always the priority for Pat Spence

Pat Spence

Pat Spence

It was never about codes and ordinances for Pat Spence. They were a necessary part of the job, but certainly not the priority.

That would seem to fly in the face of his occupation. Spence, who died Wednesday in Phoenix, was a career police officer and municipal manager.

For Spence, it was always about the people and his community.

Spence's career in public service began and ended at the Cottonwood Police Department. He started there as a dispatcher for the agency in 1972. He began working as a patrolman after earning his law enforcement certification in 1975.

Spence would later become the first town manager in Clarkdale's history in 1982. For many years, he wore two hats in Clarkdale, serving as both the town manager and police chief. He returned to the Cottonwood PD as chief in 1996.

In Clarkdale, Spence teamed with Jay Trewern and was highly successful in obtaining federal grant dollars to modernize the dilapidated infrastructure of the former smelter town. Spence and Trewern were a great team for Clarkdale; Spence had a real knack for recognizing his own weaknesses and hiring people who could become his perfect complement. Spence led the way in the town obtaining the old post office and converting it into the Town Hall of today. At the same time, he pulled some rather stubborn political strings to keep the new Post Office in the heart of downtown Clarkdale when postal officials had other plans.

There is an important lesson for today's era of public servants to learn from Pat Spence. He never did business by citing public policy or referring to the municipal code. Instead, he looked you in the eye, told you things straight up and developed relationships.

Pat Spence was perhaps the only police chief in the United States of America whose home number was listed in the telephone directory -- and he would answer the phone, listen and take care of business immediately during his so-called down time. He was always "on duty."

He understood the empathy parents needed when dealing with a teen who was walking down the wrong path. He dealt with them as a fellow parent who understood their pain instead of treating it as a criminal matter. And, there is more than one young man in the Verde Valley who will tell you that they chose to take the right path not because Chief Spence arrested them, but rather because he gave them a stern lecture and a good old-fashioned kick in the pants.

Perhaps the longest day in Chief Spence's life occurred in the late 1980s when a young man reported his wife and infant child missing from Patio Town. In the end, Spence arrested the man for murdering his wife and child. In the midst of that tragedy, though, Spence was more of an on-the-spot grief counselor for the victim's family than he was a cop solving a crime.

He never quite got over the frustration of the unsolved murder of young Marisol Gonzalez in Cottonwood in the 1990s. It especially ate at him because he was convinced he knew who the murderer was but prosecutors would not touch it because there simply was not enough evidence with which to make a case.

See, what made Pat such a special public servant was that he genuinely cared. It was never just a job.

Codes, ordinances, rules and regulations always took a back seat to the community and the people. The community, and especially the people, were the priorities for Pat Spence.

It was a great run of service. Certainly, Pat Spence was the first to say that he was blessed to have been able to live and work in the Verde Valley.

But the truth of the matter is that we were the lucky ones.