The Union County Sheriff’s Office is losing a long-time deputy who is as skilled at calming tense situations and making friends for his department as he is discussing traffic laws.

Deputy Jim Gray, who began working for the Union County Sheriff’s Office in 1992, has retired.

“I’m 66 and this is a young man’s game,” said Gray, who finished his last patrol on Wednesday.

Gray, a special deputy to Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen, has worked 24 of the past 27 years for the sheriff’s office. Much of this time he also worked for the Oregon Department of Transportation, from which he retired in 2003 after a 31-year career.

“I had the best of both worlds, two jobs I really enjoyed,” said Gray, whose last job with ODOT was as its local equipment shop manager.

Cathie Falck, office manager at the Union County Sheriff’s Office, said Gray is a very popular staff member.

“He is an excellent mentor. He has a wealth of knowledge and is always willing to help out,” Falck said. “He is fun to be around.”

She also lauds his professionalism.

“He was totally fair and impartial,” she said.

Sgt. Ken Woodward of the Union County Sheriff’s Office added that Gray has an uncanny ability to win people over, even when he is writing them a ticket.

“He is the only officer who gets thanked after giving people a citation,” he said, explaining Gray has a knack for inspiring errant motorists to drive more safely.

Mary Lynn Townsend, who worked for the Union County Justice Court for many years until recently retiring, said her office received letters from people who said Gray helped turn their lives around when he cited them.

“They said it was a wake-up call,” Townsend said.

Gray, who specialized in traffic patrols, said he was always all business when making traffic stops yet strived to take steps to ease the tension. He noted very often when he wrote someone a ticket the motorist would say, “I don’t deserve this.” The reserve deputy would respond by agreeing with them.

“I would tell them, ‘You are right. You don’t deserve this — you earned it,’” Gray said.

Most motorists found they could not argue with this.

Speeders could never quibble with Gray because he always brought out a portable laser tracking device that indicated how fast they were going. Sometimes they would argue that the device must have been tracking someone else, but then Gray would explain how it locks on to a single vehicle.

Gray often found people he pulled over for speeding or minor traffic violations were afraid they might go to jail or get a criminal record. He did his best to reassure them that tickets for traffic infractions are minor compared to crimes.

Gray said drivers who were respectful of him had a better chance of getting a reduced fine. For example, someone speeding at 93 miles per hour faces a fine in the $400 range under Oregon law, but someone clocked at 90 will get a ticket in the $200 range. Gray said when a driver clocked at 93 miles per hour was polite he would write a citation for 90 miles per hour.

Gray always wore sunglasses when making a traffic stop during daylight hours because this prevented people in the vehicle from seeing what he was looking at.

“I wanted to have an edge,” he said.

Gray said the sunglasses made it easier for him to see if the vehicle he stopped had weapons or contraband.

He said he ended each traffic stop by earnestly telling the driver to drive safely.

“I never said, ‘Have a nice day,’ because I knew their day was already a bad one (because of the ticket),” he said.

Gray never encountered anyone who was violent while on patrol, but he had his share of harrowing experiences. For example, last fall he pulled over a woman for speeding on I-84. After talking with her Gray went to his patrol car to write a ticket. About a minute later, a semi passed the woman’s parked car and clipped her driver’s side mirror, right where Gray had been standing.

“It blew it off (and) shattered the mirror,” Gray said.

He shudders to think what would have happened if he had been standing there when the semi went past.

“If I had been there, I would not be here today,” Gray said at a retirement party Wednesday at the office of the Union County Sheriff and the La Grande Police Department.

Gray said one should never underestimate the danger of being on a freeway.

“When you are out there, you have to watch for traffic because it is not watching for you,” the now-retired law enforcement officer said.

Gray worked as a volunteer for the sheriff’s office until 12 years ago when he began getting paid for 20 hours of work a week. He credits the efforts of Sheriff Rasmussen with finding room in the budget to compensate him for his time.

He worked without pay for years because of his lifelong interest in law enforcement.

“It is fascinating,” Gray said.

See complete story in Friday's Observer