THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, March 20, 1996 TAG: 9603200471 SECTION: LOCAL PAGE: B1 EDITION: NORTH CAROLINA SOURCE: BY LANE DeGREGORY, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: KILL DEVIL HILLS LENGTH: Long : 116 lines
When Jim Gradeless became a patrolman for this Outer Banks town in 1978, he stopped a woman for speeding.
Gradeless told the motorist she was endangering her young daughter sitting in the backseat by speeding. He gave her a warning.
Fifteen years later, the woman telephoned Gradeless - long since promoted to chief of the Kill Devil Hills police department - and reminded him of the warning. And she thanked him for changing her life.
``She said since then, she'd always taken care of her daughter. She said I'd made her think about her responsibilities, not only as a motorist, but also as a mother. And she told me her little girl was getting married that weekend,'' Gradeless recalled Tuesday.
``That was an everyday, routine thing I did all the time. But it really impacted that lady. And she was appreciative.
``I'm an emotional guy,'' said the chief, taking off wire-rimmed glasses to dab at his deep brown eyes. ``I had to work hard to hold back the tears. But that, after all, is why I got into this business in the first place - to help people.''
On May 3, Gradeless will give up his gun and gold badge. After 21 years of police work on the Outer Banks, the white-haired chief with the long, thick bangs is going to retire.
He is looking forward to cooking dinner for his wife, researching his family tree and spending time with his son and two teenage grandchildren in California.
Most of all, he said, he's hoping to expand his social life and get a chance to enjoy the people who caused him to fall in love with North Carolina's barrier islands in the first place.
``This is probably the only thing I've ever done in my entire life that will make everyone happy,'' Gradeless said of his impending retirement. ``It makes a lot of people in the community glad. It pleases the guys around here that will be up for a promotion. And, of course, I'm happy about it, too.
``There's always a certain barrier between me and most people because I'm the chief of police. I wish it wasn't that way,'' said Gradeless, 59. ``I try to wear civilian clothes to remove some of that. Most times I wear a uniform, I don't wear a gun.
``You get restricted in your outside activities in my position because you try to be so careful not to be criticized for doing human things. I don't drink in public because it's too easy to be looked at askance for that. I don't like to be impaired anyway. So it's not that hard. But it'll be nice not to have to be so careful about everything once I'm out of office.''
Dressed in white pants, a navy blazer and light blue oxford shirt unbuttoned at the neck, Gradeless seems less stern sitting behind his wooden desk than he does surveying Kill Devil Hills' streets.
He is at home here, in the office he has occupied since being promoted from interim police chief more than 11 years ago. And the relics around his oblong room help visitors piece together his past - and personality.
On the back wall, the Three Stooges dressed in Keystone Cop uniforms ham it up on two black-and-white movie stills someone gave him years ago.
Nearby, framed photographs of the 1979 Kill Devil Hills Police Department show a smiling Gradeless leaning against patrol cars with seven other officers - three of whom still work in Outer Banks law enforcement activities.
There's a mural of family snapshots; a Norman Rockwell print of a benevolent policeman sharing a soda with a young boy; a white Holy Bible propped up on a brass book stand; an entire wall of certificates and awards he has won over the years; and a portrait of his wife, Marianne, whom he met on his beat a few years after becoming an officer.
``She was the first female officer who worked the streets on the Outer Banks, as far as I know. She'd worked her way up, like me, from being a dispatcher,'' Gradeless said. ``We both worked in Nags Head at the time. Our ushers at the wedding were policemen from Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. But she quit patrol work shortly after we got married and went on to become a nurse for the Dare County Health Department. We decided one policeman in the family was more than enough.''
Gradeless, the son of a Methodist minister who grew up in Norfolk and northeastern North Carolina, said he was a mischievous child and thought he was ``really a bad boy until I saw what bad was.''
He joined the Army as a paratrooper and served a 15-month stint in the Vietnam War. Then, he went into the Navy and spent years on submarines before retiring after two decades of military service.
Kill Devil Hills Police Lt. Bill Walker never went to Vietnam. But after working with Gradeless for years, he said, he felt like he had been there. ``Through Gradeless' stories of the war, I've pulled a 20-year tour of duty - and spent a lot of time on those sewer pipe subs,'' Walker said, laughing. ``The stories he's told should be in a history book somewhere. You can't repeat most of them in mixed company. But I feel like, if one of those guys he tells stories about walked into this room today, I'd recognize him right off. He's a great story teller. He's a great guy to work for.
``We don't always agree,'' Walker said. ``But you always know when he makes a decision that he's thought it through - and his heart's in the right place. He does what's good for the community. He's not a micro-manager. He never stands over you with an iron fist. He makes suggestions. And he makes people think.''
After retiring from the Navy in 1975, Gradeless arrived at the Outer Banks for a two-week vacation. He was planning to move to Florida. But he soon extended his short stay into a month. Weeks later, he rented a moving van and retrieved his belongings from an Orlando storage shed.
He worked for a while as an electrical contractor. Then, the Nags Head Police Department hired him as a dispatcher.
``I just found my way here and became fascinated with all the friendly people,'' the chief said. ``I thought I'd be too old to start a new career at 39. No one really wanted to hire me because of my age. But once I got my foot in the door, and people got to know me, they made me a patrolman.''
In March 1978, Gradeless moved to the Kill Devil Hills Police Department where he was offered a higher salary and a sergeant's position. He did filing and paperwork in addition to his patrol duties. Today, he leads a squad of 21 officers.
After 20 years of enforcing laws along the Outer Banks, Gradeless said the types of crimes committed in Dare County haven't changed much. Certainly, he said, the volume of criminal activities has increased with the amount of people. But break-ins and burglaries are still the biggest problems. ILLUSTRATION: Chief Jim Gradeless says he got into the law business to help