'There are thousands of tragedies'
April 26, 2006 - Brandon Twp.- In his career, Gary Spalo has seen his share of tragedies, the aftermath of a plane crash, a tornado, suicides, and even a murder.
As an Oakland County Sheriff's Deputy, Spalo was a member of a response team to a tornado in Novi that took out an entire mobile home park; he spent a couple of days at the scene of the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255, which killed 148 passengers, 6 crew members, and two motorists on Aug. 16, 1987; he has responded to multiple suicides over the years, which he calls "the worst,"; and he helped investigate the murder of Jeffrey "Willie" Walters, a 15-year-old Brandon High School student who had been sexually assaulted and strangled. His body was found in a stream 30 feet west of Kearsley Creek in Ortonville on the morning of May 21, 1975, after he didn't return home from a fishing trip the night before.
"It takes a toll on you," says Spalo. "There are thousands of tragedies you get called to. It makes you go home sometimes and hug your kids. I've been very lucky to put those (tragedies) in a section of my brain where they are put away."
Spalo, 59, retires on May 5 (?), after 37 years as a police officer, 32 of which were spent as a Brandon deputy.
Brandon Twp. As a police officer, you take chaos and make order, Spalo says. "You get justice for the tragedies in people's lives."
Spalo chose his career path in the late 60s. A former Marine from 1964-1967, he was attending Ferris State University's engineering program when, he says, he discovered he didn't do well at math. Through tests, he found he could deal with people in a social setting.
Raised on a farm, Spalo also found he needed outside work. Police work fit the bill.
Spalo's grandfather had been a police officer and explained the very basics of law enforcement.
"It sounded interesting," he says.
Spalo applied to the Michigan State Police and joined their police training academy in the fall of 1968. He started as a state police trooper in January 1969 and did that for 10 months. During that time, Spalo spent time manning police lines at Eastern Michigan University, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan as students participated in anti-war protests.
"People were violently opposed to the war and rioting," he says. "We arrested people we had to and used tear gas."
Spalo became a private investigator and for five years did undercover work— including investigations of jewelry theft— before meeting his wife, Jacalyn, and coming to work for the Brandon Township Police Department in February 1974. Spalo became an Oakland County Sheriff's deputy a few years later when the township contracted with the county for police protection, but remained in Brandon.
A patrolman, Spalo also spent four years on an auto theft taskforce and has been involved with the S.W.A.T. team for 29 years as an instructor, teaching the use of firearms, tactics, rappelling, explosives, terrorism response, the basics of chemical weapons, rescue of hostages and critical incident negotiations.
"I've negotiated with emotionally disturbed persons who are threatening violence," he says. "I've been very successful in getting them where they needed to be in treatment."
Spalo says he has faced at least once or twice a year a situation where a person means to do him violence. He counts himself as very fortunate that he has never been shot.
Although his job involves responding to people in crisis and the situations are often traumatic for all involved, he says it is sad to be leaving a position that has also been rewarding. Spalo has seen a tremendous loss of life through the years, he has also changed, and saved, lives.
"The best of times are when you arrive at something tragic and you can see you made an impact on their life and maybe even save it," says Spalo.
He recalls a man who collapsed at Oakland Community College in Spalo's presence. The deputy began CPR on the man and continued for 30 minutes until he came back around, his life spared. Spalo was given a life-saving award and met the man a few years later when newscaster Jerry Hodak brought them together.
"He was overwhelmed," Spalo recalls. "He thanked me and said, 'You've given me everything I have and that's my life.'"
Spalo also remembers a man who walked into Brandon Fire Station #2 and said, "I think I'm having a heart attack."
The deputy and firefighters had to talk the man into going to the hospital.
"He died, but they brought him back," Spalo says. "Two years later, my wife and I were at a restaurant and this man walked up and said, 'You saved my life.' These are wonderful times. There is no price you can put on being instrumental in their life or saving it."
The father of two children, Garett is 27 and daughter Jillian is 24, Spalo has also shared in the joy of other parents. He remembers locating a boy of about 5 who had wandered away from home and been gone more than three hours and it was nearly dark when Spalo and other searchers found him crying in the woods. He was carried home to his mother.
He has also assisted in a few births.
Spalo recalls a bitterly cold February night in the early 70s when he delivered a woman's third child on a sidewalk outside of her apartment. He used a stack of blankets and the woman delivered a baby boy there before being transported to the hospital.
Another woman, a prisoner, gave birth to a girl in the backseat of his patrol car while en route to the hospital.
"It was messy," he says, smiling.
Spalo walks to work everyday from his home in the village and says there has never been a day where he didn't want to come to work.
"It's one of those jobs where you touch the heart, soul, mind and body of so many people," he says. "Even though you deal with tragedy, you handle it professionally, give these people a hug, a hand on the shoulder, advice. People never forget you."
Spalo will never forget them, either. He has eight safe boxes filled with reports on cases he has worked on over the years.
His plans for retirement include traveling and doing things with his wife, who he describes as a dedicated woman who has served just as long as he has. He notes that being a policeman's wife is very difficult.
Spalo is retiring as a police officer, but will continue to teach criminal justice at OCC.
"I enjoy teaching police skills," he says, smiling. "I'm in excellent health and not ready for the rocking chair."