CHAMPAIGN — "I don't sit in here a lot," said Von Young from behind the desk in his office, with a pair of bald eagle statues poised on the shelf above him.
The longtime law enforcement official's approach to policing is to be out and about, talking with "stakeholders" and responding to community needs.
"I'm a big believer of community policing and (Parkland) is the perfect place for it," he said on a recent morning in the X wing of Parkland College.
Young, a former Champaign Police Department officer, will retire as Parkland's police chief at the end of the year. In his 12 years as head of the police department and director of public safety, Young, 63, is credited with professionalizing the community college's force, from implementing seemingly small changes such as addressing officers by their titles rather than first names to emphasizing training for new and continuing officers.
"He has taken the concept of community policing and brought it to the college, where officers are visible and where they get to know the students," said Linda Moore, vice president for student services at Parkland. "Their primary role is making sure this is a safe community, but they're also very vested in helping our students become the kind of people, graduates and citizens we want to produce. Von models that himself. He works so collaboratively with everyone on this campus."
Born and raised in Jacksonville, Young joined the town of Lincoln's police force in 1971. A few years later he became a patrol officer on the Champaign Police Department.
But 10 years later, after becoming disillusioned with police work, he decided to try something new: sales. He worked his way up to becoming a vice president for international sales for a local software company, but returned to the Champaign Police Department in 1992.
"I did miss the job," he said.
Over the years he advanced to sergeant, lieutenant in charge of the University of Illinois campus district and later the officer in charge of professional standards, otherwise known as the internal affairs guy.
In 2002, while attending a staff and command workshop (and with his eye on retirement), he met Bonita Burgess, who after a few days of getting to know Young started recruiting him for the Parkland job.
"I wanted somebody as enthusiastic about Parkland as I am," Burgess said.
He landed the job and started in August 2002, less than 24 hours after retiring from Champaign.
At the time, "we were still in the early stages of convincing people we were the police," said Burgess, now the associate director of public safety at Parkland.
While being interviewed about the job, Young said Parkland staff asked him what he would change. Young responded by saying he wouldn't change anything right away. He wanted to observe and learn first.
"I think I've always been one of those people who listens before jumping to conclusions," he said.
However, as he moved into the position, Young gradually oversaw several changes on campus.
"He called us by our titles. It helped solidify in our mind, 'We are a police department,'" Burgess said.
And they started acting like a police department. They arrested people, more so than in the past. To discourage those who had no business (except to sell drugs or conduct other illegal activity) from hanging out on campus, officers started checking identification cards. Recognizing that sometimes 19-year-olds do stupid things, the department started enforcing city ordinances and issuing notices-to-appear for theft, fighting and underage drinking — instead of filing state charges for a crime such as stealing a bag of chips.
The message being delivered? We are a police department. In a college environment.
"He's an outstanding guy who has a professional demeanor and disposition. He's one of those guys who is a true gentleman that's respected everywhere he goes," said Jeff Christensen, executive director of public safety at the University of Illinois. The two speak regularly as part of a local police chiefs group and as part of the Illinois Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, a professional association of people in charge of safety at public and private institutions in the state. (Young has been its president.)
As he's developed a professional department, Young has always been an approachable leader, his colleagues said.
"People tend to gravitate to him. Being in the community for what, 35 years, you can't go anywhere without running into 50 people that know him," said Jim Bustard, director of Parkland's physical plant. "Everybody knows and loves Von. He's caring, honest and he remembers people, not just faces but also names."
As chief, Young oversees an annual budget of about $1 million. There are currently 17 full-time employees — 11 of them sworn police officers — plus five part-time employees.
Over the last decade the campus has grown to include many more buildings to patrol, such as the Parkhill Applied Technology Center and the Tony Noel Agricultural Technology Applications Center. The new student services center, a huge, 100,000-plus-square-foot addition, is expected to open in March.
Originally Young had planned to retire in the summer of 2014, after that building opened. But last summer he was sidelined by a heart attack.
"The decision to leave was a very hard one," he said. Ultimately he decided "I need to take the stress out of life."
He and his wife, Debi, have three sons; two of them — Von III and Christopher — are police officers in the Champaign Police Department. In his free time he builds furniture — doll-sized furniture for his granddaughters, as well as adult-sized pieces.
"It's something I enjoy. I can cut wood and it takes the stress away," he said.
Young has received a few offers of part-time employment post-retirement, but "right now, I want to take it easy. I'll see what future brings."
As for the next Parkland police chief, Moore said Burgess will fill in on an interim basis after Young leaves. A search for a permanent replacement is just getting launched. A job description has been posted and the committee charged with hiring the chief will meet for the first time next week. Moore anticipates interviews to be conducted in February and the search wrapping up before spring break.