Departing Champaign police sergeant worked to keep school zones safe
CHAMPAIGN — Don Shelton has worn a few different hats in his adult life: nursing student and professional drummer for the likes of Styx and Kenny Loggins to name a couple.
But the one he's probably best known for is traffic cop.
"It's easy to recognize me because I'm one of the few blacks here, and I'm tall," said the 55-year-old Champaign police sergeant whose last day on the department is today (Thursday, Sept. 27).
His shift Thursday was scheduled to include a brief ceremony on the playground of Holy Cross School, 410 W. White St., where staff and students planned to thank him for years of keeping traffic moving safely at White and Elm streets while parents dropped off children for school.
Traffic directing is an assignment that Shelton assumed on his own more than a decade ago.
"It started in 2000 when the first time I worked day shift as a supervisor, I was driving past Dr. Howard (School) when I saw an upset crossing guard and got out to talk to her. She claimed she had been practically run over by someone who refused to stop. From that morning on, every day I worked, I went to Dr. Howard in the morning, turned my squad car lights on and stood in the street," he said.
While at Dr. Howard on University Avenue, Shelton said he began thinking of other traffic tie-ups in other school zones on major thoroughfares.
"It occurred to me we could solve these problems by assigning officers and enlisted the cooperation of other supervisors," he said.
"From there, I went to Bottenfield, then to Carrie Busey which is now Westview, and then to Edison," he said.
The word spread to other schools, and they began requesting help with traffic, he said.
There are now six zones:
— Dr. Howard on West University Avenue.
— Bottenfield on South Prospect Avenue.
— Westview (formerly Carrie Busey) on West Kirby Avenue.
— Edison on Green and Prairie streets.
— The area around Judah Christian on North Prospect, which also takes in nearby Franklin Middle School on North Harris Avenue.
— Holy Cross at White and Elm streets.
"I try to do Holy Cross myself because I tend to be freer to do it. When I leave, that's probably going to stop," he said. "I've asked an officer to keep an eye on it, but there's a staffing problem."
In his 23 years on the department, 14 of them as a sergeant, Shelton has had a variety of duties, including helping start a crime scene unit, becoming an expert on crime scene photography and being a detective.
But it's when he dons the neon green vest and gloves and waves his arms in that come-on-through motion that he seems to command the most attention.
"It's the easiest thing in the world to stand up and be visible. I get a lot of positive feedback, and it makes it easier to come back," he said. "I've had people pull up and offer me candy and cups of coffee."
A Holy Cross parent concerned about his cold feet gave him a pair of thick socks for Christmas.
"I got 'em on now," he said earlier this week.
Holy Cross Principal Rose Costello said school staff and parents have been grateful for his presence.
"He helps to remind all of us we need to be extra careful, diligent and attentive about what we're doing in the morning. It's important for the safety of everybody," she said.
Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb called Shelton "instrumental" in setting up the traffic patterns in the school zones.
"That's invaluable to us, not to mention the day-to-day stuff he does," Cobb said.
"Don is very instrumental in projecting a positive image for our agency out there. He took this on single-handedly and started (traffic) enforcement in the school zones. He did it on his own. It's been well-received by the community and parents. We've had lots of positive feedback citywide," said Cobb, who said traffic enforcement is a high priority.
Aside from his traffic-directing prowess, Shelton is known as an easygoing person with the ability to defuse stressful situations.
Champaign resident Mindy Haile, the mother of 10, said when her now-34-year-old son was a middle school teen, he was struggling with friends and behaviors that were getting him into trouble.
"Everyone had tried different ways of trying to relate to him and nothing worked. And yet this young detective who had a jheri curl perm and wore a long black leather jacket met with my son. My son was real skeptical about him. They went to wash a car, talked, had a burger and a Coke. My son got out of the car, and they were friends. It's lasted all these years. He's married and has four children now. That friendship saved him from a lot," Haile said.
Last summer, another of her teen sons was in an argument with his older brother outside their home, saw Shelton in the neighborhood on another call and sought him out.
"Because of the relationship (Shelton had) built with his older brother, he went right up to him and (Shelton) resolved it in minutes," she said.
"We love him."
Although Shelton is leaving the Champaign Police Department, he's not headed off into the sunset of retirement.
Last week, he was notified that he had been appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
Among the board's duties: impose conditions on inmates leaving prison, revoke and restore good conduct credits, conduct parole violation hearings, notify victims' families when an inmate is about to be released and make confidential recommendations to the governor about requests for clemency.
"It's an opportunity to work on the tail end of the justice system as opposed to the front end. It's decent pay, so from a practical viewpoint, it's good for me. It's an opportunity to see what's going on at the state level," said Shelton.
A website for Quinn's office listing appointments to boards said Shelton, a Republican, will earn $85,886 a year in the post. He was one of two people appointed last week to the 15-member board. His term ends in January 2017.
He said he anticipates his home will remain in Champaign, and he'll travel to prisons around the state to interview inmates and to Springfield for meetings.