Le MARS, Iowa | Stuart Dekkenga got into a minor fender-bender when he was leaving work a couple months ago.
“I had the sun in my eyes so I held my hand up to block it. I was looking the other way and then I ran right into a lady at a stop sign," he said. "I just wasn’t paying attention.”
The police officer who responded to the accident found his boss as the culprit.
"I told him to do what’s right," said Dekkenga, the 22-year police chief of Le Mars. "It was my fault, so he wrote me a ticket."
After 38 years in law enforcement in the Plymouth County seat, doing the right thing is a legacy he hopes resonates with the 14-officer department.
"I tell the guys here all the time if there's a question on how to do it, just do it right. Sometimes that takes longer and sometimes it doesn't," Dekkenga said in an interview in his nearly-cleared-out office prior to his last day on the job last Friday. "It's kind of been something I hang my hat on when I need to."
Dekkenga, 57, grew up in Sioux Center, Iowa, and had aspirations of becoming a carpenter. When he went to sign up for classes at Western Iowa Tech Community College, he was disheartened to learn the carpentry program was full for the next two semesters.
"I kind of sank a little bit," he admitted. "I uttered the words, 'Well, what do you got open?' (The college official) started listing off courses and said police science and I told him to sign me up for that. It was a spur of the moment thing, and I haven't really looked back since. I just figured it was a God thing. He decided to push me in that direction."
During college, Dekkenga worked security at Sodrac Park, a now-defunct greyhound racing track in North Sioux City, and was a night patrolman in Onawa, Iowa.
In June 1979, he started his law enforcement career in Le Mars as an officer. He was promoted to sergeant in the mid-1980s, then again to captain five years later before becoming chief in 1995 to fill a retirement.
"This has been a good place to work. Good people to work with and that's what really makes the difference. This is a people business," he said. "It has been a real blessing for me. Yeah, we have had our struggles. A lot of things we get involved with aren’t pretty. They are not nice. But we still manage to get through it and help other members of the community get through it too.”
Dekkenga recalled some high-profile cases the department has gone through such as the 1992 killing of Julie Baack and the Hayden family slaying in 2006 where police believe the father killed his wife and two teenage kids before he committed suicide.
"That was really rough for a couple of our guys here because it was a local family," Dekkenga said. "One of the first responding officers to the scene was also a godfather to the children. That was pretty traumatic for the group of people working here at the time. Because it was personal."
But the good parts in his tenure in law enforcement?
"Right here," he said coming behind his desk. He walked to a cabinet and grabbed a piece of paper (among many) hanging up.
"Thank you for finding my bike for me,” a weathered note read, signed by an 8-year-old named Patrick.
“Isn’t that cool?” he asked.
Dick Kirchoff has been mayor of Le Mars of almost a decade and his relationship with the police chief has been "absolutely great."
“Stu has done a tremendous job. There has been a lot of changes in city government in the last seven or eight years and he has adapted to them very well," Kirchoff said. "... I just can’t say enough good things about Stu."
Kirchoff said the city has hired an outside consultant to help dwindle the 40 police chief applications to five. Interviews will take place this week. The city's goal is to have a new chief by mid-August.
Dekkenga's wife, Karla, recently retired from the Iowa Department of Human Services. The two plan to restore their 1880s Victorian home and visit their three children in Denver and see a new granddaughter they haven't met yet.
"I have no regrets," Dekkenga reflected. "I think it has been very honorable because I have a real strong sense of justice -- on what's right is right."