Over the past year or so, Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger has come to know Mike VanKirk as a man of few words. But when he does speak, Schwertfeger said, people listen.
That quiet, yet confident, leadership style is one of many things Schwertfeger will miss about his former deputy chief, who retired Friday after 27 years with the department.
"He's a good friend, he's a quality person. ... He's a quiet man, but when he speaks, it's quality information that he's relaying," Schwertfeger said. "He's the kind of person you want to be your neighbor, that you want to sit next to in church."
The department's remaining deputy chief, 32-year veteran Martin Kimball, described VanKirk as dependable, reliable and an intelligent, level-headed problem solver.
"He's exactly what you're looking for in a police officer. ... He was always a good influence on younger officers. He would go out of his way to teach them what to do, what not to do," Kimball said.
It was those qualities that led City Manager Robert Herron to select VanKirk as interim police chief not once but twice over the last several years, following the departures of former chiefs Kevin Gessler and Robert Matheny.
"We spoke regarding his approach, and I thought it was exactly what we needed the two times that we needed it," Herron said.
The respect VanKirk commanded among his colleagues is clear, and speaking with VanKirk leaves no doubt the feeling is mutual.
"They're like my family," he said of his former co-workers. "You become very close, working with each other through some very tough situations."
VanKirk - who soon will move to Charlotte, N.C., and open a new chapter of his life working for a company that develops law enforcement software - takes pride in having made Wheeling a safer community over the last 27 years. He also relished his role as a mentor to younger officers.
"It was a great time. I really couldn't picture doing anything else. ... It was an exciting job, and I loved it," VanKirk said. "This is what I was meant to do."
One of his most memorable experiences came about 16 years ago, when he and Gessler pulled a man from the edge of the Suspension Bridge who was about to jump. He also recalled a night in 1991 that in the heat of the moment he thought might be his last, when he was sent to respond to a bar fight on Washington Avenue.
When VanKirk arrived, a subject was fleeing the scene.
"The guy accelerated and hit me, and I landed on the hood of the car. ... I pulled out my gun and took a shot at him. He accelerated, and I fell off the hood of the car, and he took off," VanKirk recalled, noting police eventually caught the man, who ended up pleading guilty for his actions that night.
VanKirk will be honored at a reception at 10:30 a.m. Friday at the First State Capitol Building at the corner of 15th and Eoff streets. The police department also will recognize three recent graduates of the West Virginia State Police Academy, while the Wheeling Fire Department will announce recent promotions and introduce three newly appointed firefighters.
"I've known Mike a long time, and he will be a great loss to the department," Mayor Andy McKenzie said.
As deputy chief, VanKirk's duties included overseeing the department's detective division, internal investigation and personnel matters. Schwertfeger has not yet decided on a replacement, but he noted he will promote someone from within the department.