Chief Herb Cooley’s life as told by his son

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VINTON–For most of his life Zach Cooley saw Herb Cooley from one perspective—as his father. Listening to the accolades at his father’s retirement dinner from the Vinton Police force in 2011, he realized there was a side of his father he never knew.

His desire to become acquainted with “Police Chief” Herb Cooley led the long-time journalist to research and write “Herb Cooley: the Law Enforcement Legacy of my Father.”

Zach Cooley has written and published a book on his father's 45 year career in law enforcement. Chief Herb Cooley served as Police Chief in Vinton for a decade, retiring in 2011. (photo courtesy of Zach Cooley)
Zach Cooley has written and published a book on his father’s 45 year career in law enforcement. Chief Herb Cooley served as Police Chief in Vinton for a decade, retiring in 2011. (photo courtesy of Zach Cooley)

Zach Cooley is a columnist for “The Wytheville Enterprise” and the “Community Newspapers of Southwest Virginia,” and author of four children’s books, a historical memoir and many newspaper publications.

When his father retired, Zach says that he was aware he had been a successful police officer, but didn’t realize until the retirement party that this was just the “tip of the iceberg concerning achievements in his father’s illustrious 45 years in law enforcement.” He says that hearing respected colleagues and fellow law enforcement officers from all over Virginia and North Carolina praising his father for one accomplishment after another was overwhelming.

While Chief Cooley retired after a decade as Chief of Police in Vinton, he started his law enforcement career in 1966 in High Point, North Carolina, then moved on to Wythe County and Pulaski  before coming to Vinton.

The book details Herb Cooley’s stints in each locale, with some exciting tales from each, but recounts the daily life and issues common to all small-town police departments.

He shares some of his father’s thoughts that address the problems police officers across the nation are increasingly facing—namely “in police work you are forced to make split second decisions that courts and politicians have months and even years to second guess.”

He notes the downside of police work, especially for families—“you miss birthdays, holidays, and weekends. You routinely see gruesome sights that others only see in horror films.”

He also has some words of wisdom for police officers—“officers have to remain tough without become hardened.”

Cooley’s says his father’s history as a police officer is “deep rooted.”  In 1842 Herb Cooley’s great great great grandfather was appointed as the first sheriff in Carroll County.

However, Chief Cooley did not have a childhood dream of becoming a police officer. After graduating from Galax High School in 1961, he joined the Coast Guard, and then joined the High Point Police Force because a job was available.

Cooley tells the story of a car chase on icy roads on his father’s first day on the job—heading towards Greensboro on I-85 going 90 mph.

Is it always like this?” Officer Bill Collins recalls Cooley asking him. “No,” Collins said calmly. “This is a quiet night.”

He served as Chief Deputy in the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office for 14 years, serving with Sheriff Wayne Pike, leaving a legacy of drug and traffic safety programs still in place today. He was even president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

His career continued in the Town of Pulaski where he also served as Chief of Police.

Chief Cooley says he accepted the position of police chief in Vinton because he was approaching retirement and Vinton had a smaller force to supervise but with higher pay.

Former Vinton Police Chief Ben Cook says that Cooley began the process of rebuilding the department after a tumultuous interlude before his arrival. He began reviewing personnel records, developing new policies, and re-establishing working relationships with the community, town leaders, and law enforcement partners which had become severely strained. The department began to show drastic improvements.

Upon his arrival in August 2000, Vinton Town Council challenged Cooley to regain direction and move the department towards accreditation, a designation achieved in 2002. New accountability procedures Cooley instituted made sure that all equipment and evidence was accounted for from the time the department acquired it to the time it was disposed of.

Cooley brought many technological advances to the department during his tenure, including mobile data terminals for cars and digital in-car video systems to aid officers. He involved the department in a valley-wide data-sharing initiative to exchange information with other departments.

At his retirement dinner, in a demonstration of his true character, Cooley asked all of the Vinton police officers to stand up when he rose to speak, saying “this is why I look good, ladies and gentlemen.”

Much of Cooley’s research on his father’s career in Vinton came from interviews with Officers Andy Corbin, Jimmy Houff, and Kip Vickers and long-time administrative assistant Sharon Poff.

Cooley entitles his chapter on his father’s tenure in Vinton “A New Tenacious Leader.”

Officer Corbin told Zach Cooley in an interview that he “learned a lot from your Dad, including tenacity, as well as the constant desire to strive for improvement for the department as well as an individual.”

“Herb Cooley was never content with the status quo,” Andy said of my father.  “He was constantly striving for better.”

Corbin in credited Cooley with raising the bar for the department.

Officer Houff said that Chief Cooley led by example—“he loved law enforcement work as he dedicated his whole life to serve the community.”

Herb Cooley also believed in community policing and was involved in several community organizations.  He was instrumental in creating the Vinton Citizens Police Academy, a partnership developed with the Vinton Area Chamber of Commerce.

Poff related that “Basically, just because you had a set of rules and regulations in print didn’t mean you were good enough.  You had to be abiding by those rules and your Dad made sure that was true of the Vinton Police Department.”

Karla Turman, who now works in Vinton's Planning and Zoning Department, received an award from Chief Cooley (on left) and Mayor Brad Grose when she was an employee in the Vinton Police Department. Her father, Cliff Dicker, was a close friend of Chief Cooley and was killed in the line of duty in Wythe County in 1994. (photo courtesy of Zach Cooley and Karla Turman)
Karla Turman, who now works in Vinton’s Planning and Zoning Department, received an award from Chief Cooley (on left) and Mayor Brad Grose when she was an employee in the Vinton Police Department. Her father, Cliff Dicker, was a close friend of Chief Cooley and was killed in the line of duty in Wythe County in 1994. (photo courtesy of Zach Cooley and Karla Turman)

During his 11-year Vinton tenure alone, Cooley led the department in achieving accreditation through the Virginia Law Enforcement Standards Commission, $1.8 million of grant funds, and established business blitz and biking programs. He oversaw the merger of the Vinton and Roanoke County Emergency Control Center and developed employee recognition through an annual awards banquet, an event he also initiated as Pulaski Police Chief.

“Herb Cooley has not only been our chief, but a resource, mentor, father figure and close friend,” Cook stated.  “He has inspired us to be good officers and leaders and we will always try to maintain character, competence and commitment, the three characteristics he looks for in a police officer.”

“During his tenure, Chief Cooley elevated the level of professionalism in our police department, established respect for our department with other police agencies in the valley as well as with our citizens, and increased police department interaction within our community,” said Vinton Mayor Brad Grose.

Cooley says that this book was “a two-year long process of combing through thousands of newspaper archives from High Point, Wythe County, Pulaski and Vinton and interviewing approximately two dozen colleagues from the past 50 years.”

In the Acknowledgements section of his book, Cooley says that this project has been “the most difficult but gratifying of my career.”

Cooley discovered his father to be just as described–a “legendary officer who dedicated his life to protecting others.”

This book and all of Zach Cooley’s publications are available at http://zachcooley.com/publications/.