MIDDLEBURY — It would be an understatement to say that Gary Barclay’s first day as a Middlebury police officer was a case of baptism by fire.
It was 1971. The Vietnam War was still raging and President Richard Nixon was in the White House. Barclay, then 25, had recently dropped off an application at the Middlebury Police Department in hopes of securing some part-time work in a field that appealed to him.
Then the call came. It was from then-Middlebury Police Chief Robert Van Ness.
“He said, ‘Would you like to come in and work for the police department?’” Barclay recalled. Then the chief added, “If you can, can you start tonight?”
He quickly shook off the butterflies and reported for duty that evening for the first of what would be hundreds of assignments as a special (part-time) police officer with the Middlebury Police Department over the span of four decades. Barclay has decided, after 40 years, to take his name off the regular assignment list, though he will still make himself available for occasional traffic control and special assignments.
“I’m getting older,” Barclay said with a smile when asked last week about his reason for retiring. “As you get older, that alarm clock rings earlier than you want.”
He’s answered that alarm through many years of assignments during evenings, weekends and some holidays requiring shift coverage.
His first assignment back in 1971 was overseeing one of the then-regular community roller-skating gatherings at the municipal gym. He was asked to perform crowd control, make sure no one was smoking and ensure there were no gatecrashers.
“I encountered all of that,” the Middlebury native said of the list of possible infractions.
Back then, the police department had five officers and one police cruiser, according to Barclay. With fewer personnel, part-timers were a precious resource for the department that has since more than doubled in size to meet the town’s growing population and service needs.
Barclay recalled some weeks when he would work 40 hours at his day job (Standard Register, then CPC of Vermont) and an additional 40 hours for the Middlebury police, filling in coverage gaps. While police work has been a passion of his, he never aspired to taking on the vocation on a full-time basis — in spite of several job offers throughout the years. The public safety pay scale and a desire to keep as many holidays free as possible compelled Barclay to remain a special officer. He also put in 17 years with the Addison County Sheriff’s Department.
“I didn’t take this job for the pay,” Barclay said. “There was a lot of self-pride — and I enjoyed it.”
But while he was always a part-timer in title, he said he always gave the job complete dedication.
His motto: “On my watch, not officer will get hurt; we will all come home.”
Not that there weren’t some close calls throughout the years.
Barclay recalled a high-speed chase that began in Burlington and spilled into Middlebury. The suspects smashed into a few police cruisers along the way. Barclay picked up the pursuit on Route 7 and kept pace with the suspects at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, until they finally veered into a ditch in Salisbury. There, he made the arrests.
Then there was an incident involving the theft of beer from a local store by some members of a Burlington-based motorcycle gang. Barclay and a colleague responded to the scene and were at first overpowered by the bikers.
“They kept us separated,” Barclay recalled. But Barclay was eventually able to grasp his flashlight from his belt and conk his captor to get free.
“We made a couple of good arrests from it,” Barclay said with a smile.
The job wasn’t always about fighting crime, however. Barclay recalled an incident where he successfully chased down a suicidal woman before she could throw herself into a frigid Otter Creek. Then there was the time he helped deliver a baby from a woman in labor at what was once a popular parking spot on Chipman Hill.
“The baby and the mom both made it,” he said with pride.
Now at 65, Barclay is happy to let the younger officers take on the foot chases. He’s been there, done that, and has seen a lot of transitions within the department during the past 40 years. He cited training requirements, technology and the types of crimes as being among the biggest changes he’s seen.
When Barclay first started, officers would write their reports on paper, then submit them to a secretary to be typed up. Everything now is, of course, done on computer.
Weapons, forensic science and investigative techniques have also improved by leaps and bounds since the early 1970s.
“Everything is so much newer, much more advanced,” Barclay said.
Those new tools and technology, he said, are essential for police to perform in a changing criminal landscape.
“We are fighting a different kind of crime than we were 40 years ago,” Barclay said. Back when he first started, Barclay recalled dealing primarily with small burglaries, bar fights, drunk driving cases and some drug possession cases.
“That has changed,” Barclay said. “Drugs have escalated to being almost out of control.”
He said it used to be that an officer could quickly detect a person who was under the influence by the odor of alcohol. But Barclay noted people are taking drugs these days that frequently don’t offer such clues — until an incident gets out of hand.
Barclay has served under three chiefs and recalls the days when the department was ensconced in the basement of the Municipal Building. It was around seven years ago that the department moved to its new headquarters off Seymour Street — a building that offers greater peace of mind for victims and police, Barclay noted.
“It is of super benefit for victims who want to be away from a suspect,” Barclay said.
With more free time on the horizon, Barclay looks forward to spending more time with his family, including wife Madeline.
“The first person I should thank is my wife, because all those years I spent in the cruiser, she stayed at home,” Barclay said.
The Middlebury selectboard recently signed a resolution honoring Barclay’s years of service.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said Barclay will be missed on the force.
“Gary is one of the most reliable people I have ever known,” Hanley said. “He has a great temperament, and knew how to deal with people. He was a model officer.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]