FISHER — He was part of the U.S. force that ousted Panama leader Manuel Noriega, he has rubbed shoulders with sports celebrities from Michael Jordan to Brett Favre, and he has held supervisory positions with the Champaign Police Department.
What would prompt Charles Shepard — less than a year after his retirement — to become a police chief in a Mayberry-like community in northern Champaign County?
Maybe because he got a whiff of what small-town America is all about.
Shepard was recently tapped by the Fisher Village Board to lead the village's small police force (one full-time officer besides himself and three part-timers).
Yes, there are scofflaws in Fisher, just like any community, but compared with Champaign-Urbana, crime is hardly measurable.
It wasn't as if Shepard was bored after retiring from the Champaign department in December 2010. The 57-year-old said when he left the Champaign force, "basically I was ready to move on with a different phase of my life."
Former Fisher Police Chief Rob Bross left in August to become chief in Atwood after the Fisher Village Board declined to extend a grace period that requires all full-time village employees live in Fisher. Shepard said Gibson City Police Chief Steve Cushman asked if Shepard would be interested in serving as interim Fisher police chief, and he agreed to give it a try.
Shepard agreed that police officers can become jaded when confronted so often with the unsavory side of society.
"Unfortunately, as a police officer you see people at their worst," he said. "After you retire, you realize a little more what the other side (of life) is like," he said.
And he said he has grown to like the slower pace of Fisher, which he called "a breath of fresh air."
Still, he wasn't certain he would take the post on a permanent basis.
"My friends and some of my family and (other) people, their encouragement was so strong," he responded when asked what convinced him to stay on. "I thought, 'I'll go ahead and try this again for a while.'"
Shepard asked the village board for more money for his part-time officers. They will receive 50 cents more per hour now and another 50 cents an hour in April, bringing their pay to $13.50 an hour.
"This job can be dangerous, even though Fisher is a great community," Shepard said, "and there's less chance (of violence), but it can still happen. My thoughts were, if we could get them more money, we would have better success of keeping part-timers and attracting good, quality part-timers also."
Shepard is making $44,000 as chief.
A native of Illinois (Abingdon and later Marietta, where his parents bought a farm), Shepard enrolled at Spoon River College in Canton, where he also played on the baseball team.
After junior college, he worked a variety of jobs before joining the Army in April 1987 for a three-year stint. He was airborne-qualified as a paratrooper and worked in the military police and the Criminal Investigation Command.
"We worked undercover operations," Shepard said. "We did drug operations. Anybody that was selling to soldiers or we could make a military connection with, even civilians, we had authority to go ahead and investigate it."
Shepard went through the Army air assault school and was sent to Panama twice, first on a peacekeeping mission and later as part of the invasion Dec. 19, 1989, when Noriega was ousted. He was involved in the fighting and later with overseeing prisoners.
After the capture of Noriega, Shepard ran the police station in the worst part of Panama City — working as desk sergeant, dispatcher and overseeing the jail for 12-hour shifts for a month straight.
During jungle training in Panama, Shepard said, he grew to better appreciate what Vietnam veterans had experienced.
"At night you couldn't see your hand in front of your face," he recalls.
Shepard was later sent as part of a force to secure the Virgin Islands following looting in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.
"We were there for six weeks with no power or running water," Shepard said.
After leaving the Army in 1990, he was hired as a patrolman by the Champaign Police Department, where his younger brother Don, now a detective, was on the force. Charles Shepard remained with the department for more than 20 years. He served as patrol sergeant for 12 of those years and was a detective for five years.
He also worked for three years as juvenile detective at Centennial High School.
One of the perks of working with the department was being assigned to security at Illinois sporting events, including Memorial Stadium where the Bears played home games during renovation of Soldier Field in Chicago in 2002.
One of his favorite occasions was meeting Favre, the then-quarterback of his favorite NFL team, the Green Bay Packers. He also met former Bears coach Mike Ditka, whom he drove to the airport and whom he said was huge with hands as big as boxing gloves, and Jordan at an Illinois basketball game. He said Jordan was quite personable.
"A lot of it, as I look back, is a blur," Shepard said. "I was fortunate enough that I had a lot of good officers that I supervised."
Shepard earned a Board of Governor's degree at Eastern Illinois University in 1999 under the GI Bill.
At Fisher, he has to wear many hats, not only serving a supervisory role but also, at times, as a patrol officer and doing such jobs as records clerk and evidence clerk — tasks that have specialized roles in bigger departments.
Shepard said he has been well-received by the community.
"It's a very nice little town," he said. "A lot of nice people here. As far as the crime rate, stuff still happens, but it is a breath of fresh air."
He owns a home in Urbana but plans to sell it to move to Fisher.