EVERETT — Mike Campbell is reminded of a simpler time when he drives past the line of poplars high atop a hill overlooking I-5.
He was just a boy when he planted the trees with his father at the back of the family’s property off a dead-end road in Mountlake Terrace.
That was more than a half century ago when I-5 was a gleam in an engineer’s eyes. What’s now a congested six-lane freeway was then a wooded canyon, the ultimate childhood playground.
The innocent days of Boy Scouts and ball games ended abruptly.
His father died when he was 18; his mother, less than a year later.
Like the poplars planted so long ago, the life lessons his parents taught him took deep roots. The boy who grew up to become a leader in the Everett Police Department learned from them to work hard, cherish family and serve community.
Later this month, Campbell, 60, will no longer place the pager, BlackBerry and Nextel phone on his bed stand. He’s retiring as a deputy police chief after nearly 40 years in law enforcement.
“He dedicated his whole life to the Everett Police Department,” police chief Kathy Atwood said. “He’s one of the hardest working people I have ever been around. He must be wired that way. He couldn’t slow down if he tried.”
Over the years, Campbell has held every rank, including police chief, and has worked in every division, including narcotics, traffic, marine patrol and on the SWAT team. He has seen a lot: the rise and addictive grip of methamphetamine and heroin, the sadness in the eyes of victims and computer crimes that couldn’t have even been imaged when he began his career.
“Mike was always absolutely dedicated, loyal, 100 percent to the city, 100 percent to the department,” retired deputy police chief Bob Stiles said.
“It was not so much what was best for Mike Campbell, but what was best for the department.”
By junior high school, Campbell had a pretty strong inkling he wanted to become a cop.
His determination never wavered after this parents died.
Campbell met his wife, Laura, the week his father died. They married at 19.
Campbell worked full-time at a sporting goods store while taking a full load of college classes. Together, the newlyweds took care of Campbell’s younger brother, then still in high school.
“It was very difficult, but we got through it,” Laura Campbell said.
At 21, Campbell graduated from college and became an officer with the Snohomish Police Department. With backup often a great distance away, he soon learned the importance of diplomacy when encountering suspects — a lesson he kept in mind when he joined the Everett Police Department in 1976.
“Mike would try to treat you as a human being no matter who you were,” Stiles said.
That could be tricky on the front lines supervising undercover narcotics investigations and keeping tabs on Hewitt Avenue’s once rambunctious tavern scene.
“I try to treat everybody with respect until they get to the point where they don’t allow you to,” Campbell said.
Campbell didn’t have that chance in May 1977 when he shot and killed an Oregon escapee who’d been serving time for armed robbery and had walked away from a work release program. The Oregon man, 22, and two accomplices also were suspects in the knife-point robbery of a gas station attendant south of Everett. A high-speed chase with them the day before had destroyed a Snohomish County sheriff’s patrol car.
“It was probably the most difficult thing I ever did, going home and telling my wife I had shot and killed somebody,” Campbell said.
Campbell said he’s thankful that he had a wife and family who understood the demands of his job — the many years of night shifts, the early morning calls, the daily stress of making the correct decisions in dicey situations.
Laura Campbell wears a specially-made Everett Police Department pendant on a necklace around her neck. She said she always tried to understand the pressures and responsibilities that came with her husband’s badge.
Together, they navigated the highs and lows of the job as Campbell climbed the ranks from patrol officer to chief before being reassigned to commander and deputy chief.
Campbell was chief between 1992 and 1995. He was appointed by former Mayor Pete Kinch during a tumultuous time. He was the fourth chief in five years. When Ed Hansen defeated Kinch at the polls, the new mayor convinced Snohomish County Sheriff Jim Scharf to take the job.
“He accepted me as his replacement with ease and dignity and respect and I couldn’t hold him in higher regard for the manner in which he accepted the change,” Scharf said. “He was never resentful in the least. It speaks to his character.”
Today, Campbell said he’s glad he had the opportunity to serve as the department’s leader and bears no ill will toward anyone.
“Being police chief was probably the most stressful time for me,” he said. “There were a lot of situations where you have to do the right thing and sometimes the right thing doesn’t make everybody happy. I think it made me a stronger captain and a stronger deputy chief.”
Atwood said she has appreciated Campbell’s knowledge, experience and his stewardship of tax dollars since she was appointed chief in 2011.
“He just wouldn’t stand for an ounce of waste,” she said.
As a narcotics officer, Campbell figured he was too straight laced to pull off undercover work. He did, however, manage to adopt one alter ego when he’d dress as Santa Claus for students at Everett’s Emerson Elementary School where he and his wife were co-PTA presidents.
Campbell has served on the Everett Public Schools Foundation and has put in more than 20 years on a board that helps adults with special needs find employment.
“He really has a big heart for children and a big heart for the disabled,” Atwood said. “I think that was a big part of him that not everybody saw.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; email@example.com.