STANTON — Former Sheriff Don Godell worked a 43-year law enforcement career spanning the mean streets of Detroit to the relatively tranquil back country of Montcalm County.
Godell, who served 15 years as Montcalm County’s sheriff, died Monday morning at his home in Florida. He was 79.
Godell was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula town of Chassell. He married his wife, Audrey, 59 years ago.
Godell worked as a trooper with the Michigan State Police from 1957 to 1984, including a four and a half year stint undercover in Detroit from 1969 to 1974 busting up illegal gambling and organized crime.
He first was elected sheriff in Montcalm County in 1985 after a 10-year stint as a detective sergeant at the Michigan State Police Lakeview Post. Godell helped scout locations for the Lakeview Post and was one of the original troopers stationed there.
He retired from the Michigan State Police on Dec. 28, 1984, and assumed the sheriff’s office on Jan. 1, 1985.
“For the first few months I thought that one term of this would be enough,” Godell told The Daily News just before his retirement. “Before, whenever there was a problem, I always had a superior to go to. Now I was the one who had to solve the problems.”
Former Ionia County Sheriff Terry Jungel was elected to his first term as sheriff the same year as Godell. They quickly became acquainted on various boards and committees.
“We both cut our teeth in what it means to be a sheriff,” said Jugel, now executive director of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association.
Current Montcalm County Sheriff Bill Barnwell was a road patrol deputy when Godell began his career as sheriff. Godell promoted Barnwell through the ranks, eventually naming Barnwell undersheriff for the last five years of Godell’s career.
Godell announced plans to retire in 1996.
“The next day some county officials and the prosecutor (Larry Hachman) came into the office,” Godell said. “I thought they were there for our regular staff meeting, although I didn’t know why Larry was carrying a baseball bat. It turned out they were there to convince me to run for another term. Larry said he had brought the bat in case he needed to beat some sense into me.”
Godell won one more four-year term as sheriff before retiring in 2000. Barnwell won his first term as sheriff that year and continues serving as the top elected police officer in the county.
Godell and his wife spent time in Florida during the winter for about the past 25 years. He was diagnosed with cancer a couple years ago and decided to stay in Florida last spring to continue receiving medical care there.
Barnwell remembers Godell as “a good boss.”
“He was very popular, well-liked guy both professionally and personally,” Barnwell said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor. He always loved to tell stories.”
Godell used a hands-off management style, allowing his deputies to do what they were trained.
“He was great at delegation. He set the tone and made sure everything ran smoothly,” Barnwell said. “He was very calm. He was a good mentor and a good friend.”
Godell never fired his gun to arrest a criminal or defend himself throughout his career. He told The Daily News in 2000 that he is most proud of adding three new deputies with community policing grants and working behind the scenes planning the county’s court and public safety complex in Stanton.
Jungel remembered Godell as a “cop’s cop,” well versed in carrying out the duties of sheriff.
“He personified a sheriff and what people think of with a county sheriff,” Jungel said. “He was close to the people, he understood the needs of the people, but at the same time he understood his need to uphold the law.”
Jungel said Godell was “the master of serving two masters” by balancing he duties to serve the public while maintaining law and order.
“He did it as an art more than a science,” Jungel said. “He leaves a void that may never be filled. There may never be another like him.”
Godell was an avid golfer and remained active outdoors until his death. Jungel and Godell golfed together frequently.
“He wasn’t a professional but he was a great person to play with because he didn’t take the game too seriously,” Jungel said.
Godell also had a deep interest in local history even though he wasn’t raised in Montcalm County. He compiled a lot of history about the county, including the story about how Sheriff Franklin P. Henkel was shot to death 85 years ago.
“He was always full of information, not just about law enforcement,” Barnwell said. “He knew a lot of history of the area.”
Godell is survived by his wife, Audrey; son, Mark; and daughter, Susan. Another son, Donald, preceded him in death.
A funeral will take place later this week in Florida with a memorial service in Michigan sometime this spring.
“We’re all mourning his loss and looking forward to seeing Audrey when she comes back in the spring,” Barnwell said.