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Former deputy's son walks his own path

March 31, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Ask the right question and the story is told.

Sitting in his home's living room, a soundless hunting show on a TV in the background, Richard Steerman Jr. remembered and recounted the story.

A man had committed a crime, which left little room for respect. One man, though, did respect the accused and treated him with dignity.

That man was Steerman's father, Richard Steerman Sr., who worked as a Berkeley County sheriff's deputy for nearly 27 years.

Now, the younger Steerman also will don the badge and black uniform of a deputy. He officially starts on Monday.

Police blood seems to be pumping through his veins, although it was only about six months ago that Steerman Jr. started seriously considering joining the force. He is 34 years old.

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His paternal grandfather was a deputy in Barbour County, W.Va. His uncle was in the state police, and he will join a cousin with the Sheriff's Department.

If his story begins with his father's, a good place to start is in a room in the county courthouse on Jan. 26, 1973. That was the day County Clerk John Small swore in Steerman Sr. as a deputy. He was 29 years old at the time, and retired 26 years and 10 months later.

On Thursday, Small swore in Steerman Jr. in the same room in the same courthouse.

When he was younger, Steerman Jr. would sometimes be riding in the cruiser when his father answered police calls. He remembers when his father pulled over three cars at the same time on Interstate 81.

Although law enforcement has always been in the back of his mind, Steerman Jr. started working at Lowe's eight years ago. Recently, he became interested in the loss prevention aspect of that job and decided to take the Civil Service Commission test to become a deputy.

"I figured I'm not going to get any younger," he said.

Now, he hopes to accomplish what his father did (he achieved the rank of captain) and some things he did not, like running for sheriff.

"That's what I'd planned on doing, actually," Steerman Sr. said, adding that he had not previously heard his son mention that possibility. A heart attack ended any chance of the older Steerman's name appearing on the ballot, he said.

When Steerman Sr., now 59, joined the force, he was the sixth deputy on the department's payroll, and made $500 a month. He started working 12-hour days, six days a week.

Today, 41 deputies makes up a full staff for the department, and the starting salary is $24,600 a year. Steerman Jr. will take a significant pay cut to become a deputy.

He said the salary doesn't matter if he will be doing a job he enjoys and one in which he can make a difference.

Although he'll still be a rookie, Steerman Jr. enters the profession with advice from his father.

"I said, 'You're going to be working Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, New Year's Day, New Year's Eve, the Fourth of July' " and other holidays for years, Steerman Sr. said. "Friends" his son did not know existed will be calling for advice - which he said can be curtailed by getting an unlisted phone number.

Steerman Jr.'s days off will probably be during the week and not match those of his friends. He'll work the night shift and have just enough time to shower and change in the morning before he has to be in court for a case he handled, Steerman Sr. said.

"I've really tried to paint a bleak picture for him," Steerman Sr. said with a grin, before becoming serious. "But there are a lot of rewards, too. It's a self-satisfying job if you make it that."

To make it that, Steerman Sr. said, an officer needs to be firm but fair, honest, maintain a positive appearance and do what's right.

"Right off the bat you have to figure out what kind of police officer you're going to be," Steerman Sr. said.

When asked what kind of police officer he plans to be, Steerman Jr. told the tale of his father, a criminal and dignity.

For Steerman Sr., he said he received probably his highest compliment when he retired. A local defense attorney, with whom he had sparred in court told him the Eastern Panhandle was losing a truly honest police officer.

The younger Steerman said he plans to embody the positive traits of his father.

Worrying about his only child is inevitable, and Steerman Sr. said he might find his old police scanner to listen for transmissions in which his son's unit number - 143 - is mentioned.

But he is confident his son can do the job.

"(I won't be) any more worried that I ever have since he was a little boy," Steerman Sr. said. "He's capable of taking care of himself."

Steerman Sr. is quick to say that his son is not following in his tracks.

"He's making his own footsteps."

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