Cold Spring Police Chief Phil Jones figured he'd get a hard worker when he sat down to interview Tom Decker for a police officer opening six years ago. But he wasn't holding out for much more when he hired the kid who grew up on a farm south of town.

"My expectations weren't that high, but he was a local boy and we wanted to give him a shot," Jones said Friday. "I was hoping to get a very stable workhorse, but that analogy was a total underestimation of his talents -- Tommy really surprised me."

Decker, a 31-year-old father of four, was shot on the job Thursday night - dying before the chief had a chance to let him in on another surprise.

"He didn't know it, but he was close to being promoted to sergeant," Jones said. "I didn't tell him because I hadn't interviewed the rest of the officers, but I had City Council support to make it happen within the next half-year."

Instead, Jones and his seven full-timers and nine part-timers prepared to bury the department's practical joker, a guy who spent days off shingling the other officers' roofs and a cop who owned some chickens so he could bring in fresh eggs to share at the police station.

"We lost a brother today," the chief said.

One of eight farm kids in his family, Decker graduated from Rocori Senior High School in 2000 and attended Alexandria Technical College. He worked as a police officer in small Minnesota towns such as Isle, Watkins and Kimball. But he considered Cold Spring his dream job because it allowed him to visit the family farm just about every day.

"He called just a few hours before he was killed," said his mother, Rosella Decker. "He said, 'I'll stop over a little later tonight. Oh, I've gotta go."

She said her son traced his desire to be a cop to when he was a "little kid" and wandered away from his sister at Crossroads Mall in St. Cloud.

Someone called police, and a nice officer waited with him until the siblings were reunited, his mom said. The experience showed him how helpful police could be, she said.

"He loved being an officer," she said. "It was his life's work. He wanted to help people."

Despite that forthright attitude, Decker was also a cutup, the department's goofy, laugh-prompting clown.

Tom's younger brother Joe, 27, remembered his brother's practical jokes, including the time he home-ground his own horseradish and convinced a fellow officer it was mashed potatoes.

He owned a so-called green suit, a Hollywood outfit that can make the wearer appear invisible.

"He was quite a character: meticulous, intelligent and professional but always looking for a laugh and trying to make others laugh," said Jones.

He was also a devoted dad, helping raising four young kids from a previous marriage. He remarried 14 months ago and leaves behind his second wife, Alicia, who his mother described as "a real sweet lady."

Joe Decker said Tom's creativity also showed when he designed the uniform arm patches for the Kimball and Cold Spring departments.

Up and down the streets of this tiny central Minnesota community, the talk was the same.

"It's just a shame," said Mayor Doug Schmitz, a member of the city's fire and rescue squad who has seen Decker on fire runs for years. "He was just a great, great officer. The whole department, the whole fire department, the whole city liked him. He was just well-liked by everybody. He was a smart, bright kid. It's just a tremendous loss."

Staff writers Richard Meryhew and Larry Oakes contributed to this report. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767