Deputy says goodbye to half-century of law enforcement
Deputy Norman Monroe
Norman Monroe said thanks but no thanks when the Lincoln Police Department called him in the late 1950s and offered a job.
He doesn’t remember why he declined. The farm boy from Farragut, Iowa, had worked a few odd jobs — including a short stint as a prison guard — since moving to Lincoln after four years in the Navy, and when the police department called he was unemployed and had a baby to feed.
He does remember picking the phone up a little later, calling the department back and asking whether he could change his mind.
Last week, Monroe, 79, retired from a career in law enforcement that spanned more than half of a century. This time, he retired from the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office.
One of his first assignments with the police department was to guard 2843 S. 24th St. — the home of C. Lauer Ward and his wife, Clara — after Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate killed the couple, their maid Lillian Fencl and the family dog.
“They (law enforcement) were looking for ‘em. I was guarding the house because they thought they might come back,” Monroe said. “That house looked like somebody had butchered in it.”
He almost quit that day, but stayed on because he needed the job.
Starkweather killed 11 people during a two-month killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming with the help of Fugate, his 14-year-old girlfriend. He died in the electric chair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary on June 25, 1959. Fugate was released after 17 years in prison.
Monroe said he later got to know Starkweather’s mother, Helen. She was a nice person, he said, and worked as a waitress at a café on 12th Street, where Monroe usually stopped on his break.
Back in the 1950s, he said, new officers got most of their training on the job.
“When I first went out on the street with the police department, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was supposed to do.”
He spotted Officer Pete Peterson the next street over and asked for help. Peterson, who would later go on to become Lincoln’s first black City Council member and director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles, explained what was expected of him, taught him to be a beat cop.
A couple of years later, Lancaster County Sheriff Merle Karnopp had an opening. Monroe applied and got the job.
The county job was a much better fit for Monroe. He grew up on a farm and liked the quiet, stoic rural lifestyle.
Monroe worked his way up to sergeant and headed the sheriff’s civil division for 17 years in the 1960s and '70s. His coworkers became his family. They supported each other off duty in the same way they did on duty. It seemed about everyone in the office had gone through a divorce and been remarried.
Monroe was working in the civil division when he started seeing Cynthia, his current wife. She worked in the state Capitol recording livestock brands, and he walked by her desk every day.
Cynthia spent weeks breaking through the sober, quiet persona he presented to the world, she said. It took her almost a month to get a “hello” out of him.
A couple of years later, he asked her out for coffee. She said yes, “but that’s all you’re getting,” she recalls with a laugh.
They got serious and Cynthia told Monroe she already had a diamond from her last marriage. She didn’t need another. What she needed was a toaster.
So when Monroe popped the question at the East Hills Country Club in front of their friends from the sheriff’s office, he gave her a ring with a little toaster on it instead of a diamond.
“Boy did I get jawed for that,” he said, remembering the hard time his staff gave him after the dinner.
They married in 1978. As the wife of a deputy, Cynthia went through her own trials, the toughest in March 1987.
Monroe was bow hunting with a friend when she got a call: A deputy had been shot and killed. No other information was being released.
Cynthia paced the floors for hours not knowing whether her husband was dead. He still grimaces when remembering the emotional hurricane he returned home to that day.
They found out later that Deputy Craig Dodge was killed responding to a domestic abuse situation in Hickman. Authorities believe Dodge heard the cries of Terry Reynolds’ wife and went into the apartment without waiting for backup.
“Any one of us (deputies) probably would have done the same thing,” Monroe said.
Reynolds was later sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder.
After the shooting, Monroe said, some of the younger wives pushed to be allowed to ride along with their husbands as they patrolled the county. It didn’t happen.
He retired for the first time in 1996. But when city and county officials opened up the Hall of Justice in 1999, he signed up as a security guard. He enjoyed the work, liked the people, and the extra cash came in handy after the dot-com bubble burst and wiped out his savings.
He saw people try to bring all sorts of banned things into the courthouse — marijuana pipes, knives, a cane with a sword hidden inside and a pet guinea pig.
In February, Monroe said he planned to work “until I get too old for the job.”
With his wife's encouragement, he finally decided it was time. He served under seven sheriffs, including John Packett, who was sworn in on Feb. 1, 1994, and resigned the next day.
Looking back, Monroe says he's glad he decided to pick the phone up 55 years ago and ask whether he could still have the job.