As a rookie patrol officer back in 1980, Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhof remembers the excitement of being in a squad car and thinking that he couldn't believe he was being paid for doing what he loved so much.
"I still feel that way every day — I really do," the chief said last week. "It's more of a calling than a profession. If you have the calling, it's a joy to do it every day, even the very hard days."
Still, Vonhof, 57, has decided it's time to retire. He will step down from the chief's job, which he's held since 2006, on Oct. 1 to spend more time with his family and with the three horses he keeps at his home west of town.
"The first Lakeville officer started in 1931 and retired in 1972. He was the chief. Now I'm the second-longest-serving Lakeville officer," Vonhof said. "I didn't want to go for his record there.
"I have to leave sometime," he said, chuckling. "The department's running really well. It's a good time."
Vonhof, too, started his career with the Lakeville Police Department and is ending it the same. In 1980, just out of college, he was one of 15 sworn officers. The police station was an old converted two-stall gas station with a gravel parking lot. There were three squad cars and maybe three portable radios that the officers shared.
Now, the Lakeville force has 70 employees, including 53 sworn officers. The department is housed in a new high-tech building that functions as another tool in the police arsenal.
Vonhof has worked his way up the ranks. He's probably proudest of his work as a field training officer, helping develop the skills of other officers and staff. He's trained 27 officers during a time of rapid growth and has seen them promoted to supervisory and detective positions in Lakeville and elsewhere.
He's helped develop the Pure Performance program, a drug and alcohol prevention program aimed at high schoolers. That initiative grew from a fatal car crash involving a teenager and explains the physiological impacts of drugs and alcohol so students can understand just what they do to their bodies.
He's helped develop the Lakeville Heart Restart program, which aims to train a quarter of the population — about 14,000 people — in hands-only CPR. So far, about 6,500 people have undergone the training, and many other communities in Dakota County have adopted the program.
Vonhof still answers his own phone, whether it's a resident calling to complain about graffiti or a reporter calling for a story.
He can't believe it's been almost 34 years, Vonhof said.
"It's interesting how things have changed," he said. "I've been so fortunate in the people I've worked with. So many people in that original group of officers have gone on to be successful in other organizations.
"There's definitely a new wave of leaders coming in, which is a good thing," he said. "A new perspective on things is a healthy thing for organizations."
City Administrator Steve Mielke said the process of selecting the next police chief will start in the next two weeks. A consultant will help. He hopes to have a new chief in place in 90 to 120 days.
While he's sad to see Vonhof leave, Mielke said the chief has been a stabilizing influence, a tremendous leader and a "reassuring voice to our community."
"That kind of experience can't be bought," Mielke said. "He started his career here, he's ending his career here. It's been a pleasure working with him."