Memorial held for Bill Kolender, former police chief and county sheriff

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MIRAMAR, Calif. -- Hundreds paid their respects Friday for decorated San Diego law enforcement icon Bill Kolender during a memorial service at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar's Bob Hope Theater.

Kolender, who served lengthy and notable stints as police chief and county sheriff, died Oct. 6 following a protracted struggle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 80.

The afternoon memorial service was more lighthearted than somber, with local law enforcement leaders swapping stories of how it was working with the lawman whose law enforcement career spanned more than 50 years.

Sheriff Bill Gore got a lot of laughs when he recalled how Kolender would lean in and whisper “don't screw this up Gore,'' before big press conferences and public speaking events.

“He had a bigger than life personality,'' Gore said. “He had a way of telling jokes no one else could get away with. Once it was a particularly cold night in San Diego and he said it was so cold he actually saw Father Joe with his hands in his own pockets.''

Gore -- who has worked across the country -- said other law enforcement agencies just don't have the same spirit of cooperation and collaboration as they do in San Diego -- a testament, he said, to Kolender's work in the city and county.

Many speakers noted how Kolender's traditional Jewish family was unhappy with his chosen profession, and said only when Kolender was named one of the youngest police chiefs of a major U.S. city were they proud of the man's work.

San Diego Police Department Chief Shelly Zimmerman highlighted Kolender's efforts in community policing and his commitment to hiring women and people of color as a testament to his character and popularity.

“It was Bill's ideas of the importance of community relations,'' Zimmerman said. “It has influenced the way we police today. I think everyone knows he could have easily been mayor, and many people encouraged him to run, but he had the heart of a cop.''

Kolender is widely recognized as an early champion of community-oriented policing. Early in his tenure as chief, he sought to outlaw racism and sexism in the ranks of the SDPD, promising to fire violators following a second offense, according to the San Diego Police Historical Association.

The Chicago native and San Diego State University graduate was a venerable lawman. He joined the San Diego Police Department in 1956 at age 21 and five years later became one of the agency's youngest sergeants. He continued rising rapidly through the SDPD's ranks, taking over as chief in 1976.

In the early 1980's, he established the agency's service-dog program.

After retiring from the department in 1988, he worked for a time as an assistant publisher for the Union-Tribune. In 1991, he was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson as a director of  the California Youth Authority. In the role, he lobbied for rehabilitation programs for youthful offenders.

Kolender was sworn in as San Diego County sheriff in 1995 and went on to be re-elected to the post three times, but wound up stepping down two years before the end of his final term, citing a need to care for his ailing wife, Lois.

In addition to his spouse, Kolender is survived by his sons, Dennis and Michael; daughter, Randie Kolender-Hock; and stepdaughter Jodi Karas.

Wilson said Kolender's “wonderful human side'' is what made him so popular among law enforcement professionals and residents alike.

“He was witty and just a great spontaneously funny man,'' Wilson said. “It is true he did what he loved, and he did it superbly.''