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37 years later, Poffenberger still on patrol

April 06, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

When Richard W. Poffenberger Sr. joined the Maryland State Police, the starting salary was $2,250 a year.

Thirty-seven years later, the pay is much better, and Trooper 1st Class Poffenberger is the state's senior trooper.

"The guys tease me that I've been on so long, I'm going to be bronzed," said Poffenberger, who serves out of the Hagerstown barracks.

Poffenberger, 62, draws praise from superior officers, who say road patrol troopers are the "backbone" of the force.

At graduation ceremonies of the 107th recruit class last December, Col. David B. Mitchell, the force's superintendent, said Poffenberger has more than 100 letters in his personnel file. He also noted a special gift:

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"Above and beyond his public service, he has made another contribution - in the form of Trooper 1st Class Richard W. Poffenberger Jr.," Mitchell said.

The younger Poffenberger said his father was an enormous influence on him growing up - all the way back to the days when he would lock himself in his father's patrol car as a kid.

"He is Mr. Maryland State Police," he said. "The only reason he has been able to last that long is he loves his job. He has no interest in retiring or special favors . . . He's a rare breed."

Mystique of state troopers

The senior Poffenberger said he was always attracted to state police work. He said he admired troopers' physical stature and the way they carried themselves. They seemed tall, strong and tough, he said.

But, he was not old enough to join, so he took a job with Fairchild Industries, where his father worked.

At Fairchild, Poffenberger was a commercial artist, doing technical illustrations. But he said he tired of working indoors all day and yearned for more excitement.

So he quit the lucrative job and joined the Maryland State Police in July 1960, one month after his son was born. One of his first assignments, in 1961, was to escort the South Hagerstown High School band to John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

A Maryland State Police handbook, one of dozens of mementos Poffenberger has kept over the years, lists the starting pay at $2,250 per year. After two years, the salary rose to $2,450. Still, for a man struggling to raise a family, it was a far cry from his Fairchild salary.

But Poffenberger said he loved the job, not the money.

His career has taken him from one end of the state to the other. During the riots of the 1960s, he was one of dozens of troopers called into Baltimore to maintain order.

It was on those patrols that he was shot at - twice.

"You couldn't see who shot at you," he said. "The buildings were all burned out."

Another time, Poffenberger said he pursued a suspect into wood shed after a 95 mph car chase. Once inside, the man threw a double-bladed axe at him, Poffenberger said.

"Just about hit me," he said.

Such encounters are hazards of the job.

But Poffenberger said the risk has its rewards. He pointed to several framed commendations he has from state police superintendents and County Commissioners.

One is for capturing four suspects accused of robbing post offices in Boonsboro and Burkittsville, Md. Another is for rescuing a car accident victim.

`Grinding' work

There is a reason why no one else from Poffenberger's recruit class remains on the job today, officials say. Patrolling the roads year after year takes its toll.

Capt. Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said it is a rare person who can whether shift work, weekend work and holiday duties for so many years.

"Working the road is a very tough job to have - especially for that length of time," he said. "It's very grinding day in and day out," Shipley said. "We feel it's an incredible accomplishment."

Lt. R. Bruce Tanner, Hagerstown barrack commander, said experience is a vital part of policework. And on that score, Poffenberger is unequaled, he added.

"I can't go to a place in this county where somebody doesn't know who he is," Tanner said.

Poffenberger said he has few regrets - the job truly has been fulfilling. He added that he does miss the art, though.

However, those skills have come in handy. When a drunken driver ran over a boy one time, Poffenberger quickly sketched a picture of the vehicle.

The picture led to an arrest 93 hours later, he said.

Another time, Poffenberger said he chased a suspect through Hagerstown. Before losing him, the man turned around, he said.

He quickly motioned for a pad of paper and sketched the man's face from memory. After he was finished, a Hagerstown City Police sergeant recognized the suspect, Poffenberger said. The man was arrested minutes later.

"He was still red in the face from running up there," he said.

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