Longtime Greenville Public Safety officers hang up their hats

By Kelli Ameling • Last Updated 12:18 pm on Wednesday, June 20, 2012

After long runs of service with the Greenville Department of Public Safety, Officer Mark Tomkinson, left, and Sgt. Gary Valentine are both retiring this month. — Daily News/Cory Smith

GREENVILLE — A pair of longtime members of the Greenville Department of Public Safety have fond memories of their combined six decades of service as they hang up their hats in retirement.

Sgt. Gary Valentine has spent 28 years as a full-time officer at the department. For two years prior to becoming an employee, he served as reserve officer for the department.

Public Safety Officer (third level) Mark Tomkinson has spent 32 years as a full-time employee of the department.

They are both retiring this month.

“It’s been a good run,” Tomkinson said.

In the beginning

During the beginning of their careers, the officers were in the old building, located on the opposite end of the block from the current City Hall.

Tomkinson said the holding cell at the time was a small closet-sized room with a ring on the wall where the suspects were handcuffed.

Complaint cards were a 5-by-7 index card and the officers used punch cards each time they were called out. Now, of course, everything is kept on computers.

“It was a lot more laid back,” Tomkinson laughed.

The normal eight-hour shift had only three officers on duty. Valentine said officers rotated through three different shifts staying on each shift for only a couple weeks at a time.

“That was a killer,” Valentine said.

Today, the officers mainly work 12-hour shifts.

First cases

While Tomkinson was fresh on the job, one of his first big calls was a fire that occurred in downtown Greenville on the corner of Cass and Lafayette streets in the early 1980s.

Mark Tomkinson

He explained a mother and her children were trapped in the upper apartments and died in the fire.

“Sometimes (those kinds of calls) still wake me up at night,” Tomkinson said as he looked down at the table.

Valentine agreed as he said one of his first calls was a criminal sexual conduct case involving a child.
“Some cases we wish we could forget,” Valentines said.

However, there are some calls that are not hard to remember, including ones with happy endings of lives saved.

One time, Valentine and Tomkinson arrived at a house fire together. An elderly man was trapped on an upper-story porch with no way down while the rest of his house was in flames.

Tomkinson said because they were first on the scene, they had no way of getting the man down. Valentine thought fast and grabbed a garden hose and started spraying the man from the ground to try to keep him cool.

Valentine continued to spray as the fire department arrived and Tomkinson climbed the ladder to help the man down.

“It was a matter of seconds and the porch was fully engulfed,” Tomkinson said, but the man was saved.
Over the years both men have received awards for their hard work on the job.

Valentine has received medals of honor and most recently the School Bell Award from Greenville Public Schools. Tomkinson has received the Police Officer of the Year award and other life saving awards.

Support systems

The families and members of the Greenville Department of Public Safety have been great support systems throughout the years.

Tomkinson said his wife is also retiring from his job, explaining that an officer’s family goes through what officers have to go through.

“It’s rough on them,” Tomkinson said.

Valentine agreed, saying a spouse is married to the job. An officer is defined by the job and is expected to be an officer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which affects their family.

“It takes a toll on them,” Valentine said.

Tomkinson and Valentine talked highly of their families and their support through the years.

“We are both very fortunate,” Valentine said.

Both said they also would not have made it this far without their fellow colleagues.

“There is nothing here more important than the guys we work with,” Valentine said. “They are our own best support system.”

Looking back

Although both Valentine and Tomkinson are ready to enjoy life in retirement, each have their own things they will miss.

“The guys,” Valentine said without hesitation on what he is going to miss the most.

Gary Valentine

Although his colleagues are at the top of his list, Valentine said he is going to miss the adrenaline rush, the action and always being in the mix of things and the nature, which is the nature of being a public safety officer.

“This is who I am,” Tomkinson said. “It’s 80 percent mental and 20 percent financial.”

He said there are some parts he loves about the job along with parts he hates, but when it comes down to it, it is time for him to hang his hat.

“It’s a young man’s game,” Tomkinson said.

Ending year

Many events have happened in Greenville in the last year alone. Crimes such as the Huntington Bank robbery, Family Dollar robbery and a shooting at Flat River Inn and Suites have hit the town and department hard.

“The town is growing,” Valentine said. “The days of one officer (on duty) are gone.”

People have to keep in mind Greenville is not that far from Grand Rapids, Valentine said, and the cases police are seeing in Grand Rapids are also being seen in Greenville.

“We don’t have special units,” Tomkinson said. “We are the jack of all trades.”

The next step

Tomkinson retired on June 15 and is already enjoying his first days off.

“Everyone does retirement different,” Tomkinson said.

He has already gotten some fishing in and a little bit of house work. He said he is looking forward to the fact if does not complete a task one day, he has the next day to work on it.

Although fishing and hunting are high on his list of things to do now that he is retired, the one that tops it all is spending time with family.

“I have two grandkids, (ages) 3 and 1,” he said. “Being a grandparent is the greatest job I ever did.”

Tomkinson noted it has been a long 32 years, so he just plans to enjoy his retirement.

“I plan on just monkeying around the first year,” he said.

Valentine will retire on Friday from the department and plans on taking time to relax.

“Enjoying time with family” is on the top of his list.

He is also looking forward to spending time on the lake and getting his own business off the ground.

Incoming officers

Recently, both Valentine and Tomkinson said they have enjoyed watching the new, younger officers come into the department.

Each had their own words of advice for the new officers.

“This is an honorable profession. If you don’t have honor and integrity you have anything,” Valentine said.

Going home safely each night is something an officer should keep in mind as well, he said.

“Stay focused and try to have some fun,” Tomkinson said.

Having fun with the people they work with might be the only thing to help them get through that shift.

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