LONGTIME LAWMAN MOVES ON
omewhere between the cop and the teacher, the jokester and administrator is Steve Oliver.
Oliver is ending three terms 12 years as Union County's elected sheriff.
He will be, he believes, the first Union County sheriff to choose to leave office since the 1960s. All the others lost their job by losing an election including Jerry Weir, who was defeated in the 1992 election after hiring Oliver in June 1987.
"His whole life in law enforcement," explained his wife, Kathy, "is just to be here for the people who need him."
That goal, both Oliver and his wife admit, means that he hasn't always been available for his family.
For Kathy Oliver, that's been OK, since she sees herself as "a very independent person."
But for Oliver himself, he talks about a grandson now in his early 20s and a great-grandchild he's only seen once in the child's first three months of life.
He's planning to make more time for all 10 of his grandchildren beginning in January.
With most of his office already packed into boxes to transport home, Oliver says it's time for a new sheriff to start filling his own walls with awards and memorabilia.
Oliver kept a large collection of agency shoulder patches on his office wall, a collection that often drew attention for its thoroughness in covering Oregon, and counties across America.
And then there have been the stories that slip into almost any conversation with Oliver.
Oliver's law enforcement stories stretch back in time to the Wallowa Police Department in the 1970s, to more recent highway chases with guns involved along Interstate-84. There's been dog round-ups, Chief Joseph Days patrols, and everything from fires to stories worthy of "America's Dumbest Criminals" in between.
But sometimes, the best stories are actually a bit beyond "the story."
La Grande Police Chief John Courtney remembers one such case.
He remembers when Oliver had spent his day chasing a man and woman fleeing across the county. There'd been a high-speed chase, Oliver had been shot at, and ended by chasing one suspect on foot following a car crash.
Courtney says that at the end of that kind of a day, he'd given Oliver a ride home.
"His adrenaline was still high, and after I got him home he went out and started coming down," Courtney recalls. "Then he sat on his picnic table and the thing collapsed under him. He wasn't hurt, but at the end of that day "
Oliver himself doesn't tell that story, but was known for going to state law enforcement conventions with Courtney, who usually drove.
Oliver often joked to anyone who listened that he was the only sheriff in the state who had a chief as a chauffeur.
After earning his teaching credentials in Idaho after growing up in Wallowa County and Lewiston, Oliver moved to Texas to teach school for a time.
He returned to Wallowa County and started work for the Wallowa Police Department in 1977, first part-time, and soon full-time. After two years there, he became chief of police in 1979.
Then, in October 1979, Wallowa contracted with the county government and Oliver became a resident county deputy.
When the City of Wallowa dropped that contract in 1989, Oliver started job hunting.
Oliver had a job offer in Lewiston that he would have liked to take. But at that point, he had custody of his two daughters, and his ex-wife threatened to take him to court if he moved out of Oregon.
"So I took the Union County job to stay in the state," he says. "I was a road deputy for Jerry Weir."
Having successfully run against Weir, Oliver later faced then-Union Police Chief Duane Lee in 1996 and then-Deputy Chuck Anderson in 2000. He won re-election those times, but decided after the 2000 election that he wouldn't run again.
"My wife didn't want me to run, this time," he says.
And as for himself, Oliver admits that he has "been living on stress for 27 years."
Looking ahead, Oliver has already updated his Oregon teaching credentials and has spent a few days this school year filling in as needed. Originally a history and social studies teacher, Oliver is enjoying being back in the classroom a world he never completely left, since he's the longest-serving D.A.R.E. (Drug Awareness and Resistance Education) teacher in the state, along with Elgin's Dayton Sibley.
It pleases him, Oliver says, when graduates of his anti-drug classes from years ago bring their children up to introduce now.
And while retirement and time with the grandchildren beckon, Oliver is also pleased that officers in Wallowa County, Umatilla County and others have already checked to see if he'd be available for some assignments when extra help is needed.
Oliver believes he is leaving the Union County Sheriff's Department in better shape than it was when he arrived.
At one low point in the mid-1990s, he had only two road deputies, a civil deputy and an office person in the department, besides himself.
And the jail wasn't under his control for several years, having been taken over by federal mandate.
"I started looking for grants," Oliver remembers, and an early grant funded a deputy for Island City.
Union County commissioners, he added, have "always been real easy to work with."
And when Oliver took office in 1993, that ratio of deputies per county population was about 1:8,000.
He didn't have today's proportions, but they are much improved and closer to the state recommendation of 1:1,000.
Still an issue for the sheriff's department is maintaining enough vehicles. While grants have come to put all officers in body-armor vests and install computers in vehicles and provide night-vision equipment to deputies, the vehicles, "still have a lot of miles on them," he said.
And then there's always the concern over narcotics in the county. It's an ongoing problem for law enforcement, Oliver says, and requires both prevention and enforcement against law breakers.
Oliver, whose first case in Wallowa County was one involving child abuse, hasn't seen the problem disappear. A victim himself of an abusive stepfather, Oliver sees the need for deputies to be sensitive to and open to young people.
But enough serious talk, Oliver says.
The Oliver grin appears and he explains that a high point was being chosen for the FBI course two years ago.
He's still pleased, he says, of being about "to keep up with the young kids" in the course designed for local law enforcement.
"I'm a competitor," the sheriff said.