A Life Remembered: Hoopeston police chief 'always willing to do what anybody needed'

A Life Remembered: Hoopeston police chief 'always willing to do what anybody needed'

HOOPESTON — Honor, pride, duty.

They're the pillars of the Hoopeston Police Department, and no one embodied those values quite like the organization's leader, friends and colleagues said Thursday.

"Mark took a lot of pride in protecting the town," Brad Burton said of Police Chief Mark Drollinger, a close friend since junior high. "He was always willing to do what anybody needed."

"He was just top-notch all the way around," Sgt. Jim DeWitt said, adding his friend and boss remained dedicated to his job and community even as he battled Stage 4 cancer. "Nobody will ever fill his shoes."

The police chief for 18 years, Mr. Drollinger — also a former Vermilion County sheriff's deputy and Vermilion County Board member — lost his battle on Thursday morning. He was 54.

Lifelong friend Rod Kaag can't remember a time when he didn't know Mr. Drollinger, who was a year younger. They started out playing on a Little League team that Mr. Drollinger's dad, Ralph, coached. They played football together at Hoopeston High School, rode their bikes all over town, then cruised once they got their driver's licenses.

As adults, they served together on the Vermilion County sheriff's department. They also played golf together on Sunday mornings and were part of a golf foursome at Hubbard Trail.

Burton and Mr. Drollinger met in the seventh grade and also became fast friends through Little League. At 13, Burton became an unofficial member of the Drollinger family after Ralph invited him along on a trip to Florida.

"He said, 'All you have to do is buy your plane ticket,'" Burton said, recalling how the older Drollinger explained that if he purchased a ticket, family members could fly for $50. "So, I was Brad Drollinger for a week."

Later, he accompanied the younger Drollinger on his adventures, many of them spontaneous.

"He was always game for anything," Burton said, recalling how he dropped by one day and said, "Let's go for a ride." They picked up another friend and headed to King's Island. "We had no clothes or anything and went to Cincinnati for the weekend."

They took fishing trips, NASCAR trips and one to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Possibly their greatest adventure: Stints in the Air Force.

After graduating from high school in 1981, Mr. Drollinger, then 18, planned to enlist. Burton said he somehow managed to talk him into going to see the recruiter with him.

"I went down and listened to their spiel and kind of got hooked," Burton said with a laugh.

While they hoped to go in together through the Buddy Program, they ended up going in three months apart. Mr. Drollinger was on active duty in Nevada from 1982 to 1985, and in the reserves until 1988. Burton went in three months later and served in Arizona.

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In the service, Mr. Drollinger was a military police officer and also studied criminal justice at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada during that time. Kaag believes that experience — along with his respect for his dad, longtime Hoopeston Police Chief Orval Kaag; now-retired sheriff's Capt. Gary Miller; and Hoopeston officer-turned sheriff's deputy-turned federal agent Donny York — inspired his friend to pursue a career in law enforcement.

After a short stint as a police officer in Vermont, Mr. Drollinger returned to his hometown and joined the sheriff's department in 1985. He quickly moved from patrol to the investigation division and worked under Miller.

"I knew he would be a good police officer, and he didn't disappoint me," said Miller, who recommended him to then-Sheriff Gene Hughes.

"He was a very good investigator," added Kaag, who joined the team a couple years after Mr. Drollinger. "He was a hard worker, and he wouldn't give up on a case."

"Professionally, he'll be remembered as a good officer in each of the positions he had," Miller said. "Socially, he'll be remembered for his quick wit. He was a fun-loving guy."

DeWitt met Mr. Drollinger in 1997, when he asked for assistance on a case. At the time, he was a Rossville police officer, and Mr. Drollinger was the elder abuse investigator for the sheriff's department.

"He did a superb job," DeWitt recalled.

He was honored when, in April 1999, Drollinger, then police chief, asked him to join the department.

"When Mark came here, he brought integrity back to Hoopeston," DeWitt said, adding he earned the respect of staff, city leaders and residents as well as other law enforcement agencies he worked with.

"He led by example," DeWitt continued, adding he didn't ask his officers to do anything he wouldn't do — and often did alongside them.

DeWitt credited Mr. Drollinger with beefing up training, updating computers and other equipment, even improving the report writing system.

"That was one of his well-known traits," DeWitt said. "He was very meticulous. ... You dotted all of your i's and crossed your t's with the chief. It was important to him that we went to court and looked good."

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In March 2016, Mr. Drollinger was on patrol when he got a call from his doctor's office: He had tumor on his jaw.

Mr. Drollinger told The News-Gazette he had experienced a pain on the right side of his mouth, but chalked it up to an abscessed tooth. A dentist pulled the tooth, but the pain persisted and spread to his tongue. After a series of tests, he learned he had Stage 4 cancer.

Mr. Drollinger was shocked because he had never smoked or chewed tobacco. However, he had beaten testicular cancer as a teen, and remained optimistic he would beat it again.

Nearly a year ago, on July 9, he had surgery to remove the tumor. Soon after, he started radiation and chemotherapy at the Bobette Steely Hegeler Cancer Center at Presence United Samaritans Medical Center in Danville.

He was back to work by October, though his doctors advised him to wait until the first of the year.

"Throughout all of this, he continued coming to work and doing what he could," said DeWitt, who doesn't like to say he took over the chief duties, but only that "I helped him out.

"A lot of it was in the office ... even though he wanted to be in his car fighting crime with us," the sergeant said.

Mr. Drollinger was devastated when the cancer returned this year, said Kaag, who retired from the sheriff's department in 2015. But he said, his friend continued to fight it with dignity and grace and he was buoyed by the support of his family — new bride, Susie; father and stepmother; son and stepson — and friends, who rallied around him.

"He was very headstrong," Kaag said, adding he reported to duty "even on his worst days."

Mr. Drollinger also continued to play golf when he could.

"Whenever he felt good enough to play, we would go play no matter what we had going on," Kaag said, adding his last event was the Iroquois County Sheriff's Office's annual outing a month ago. "He was tired, and he didn't hit some of the holes. But he wanted to play."

Mr. Drollinger went into hospice two weeks ago. Kaag and Burton were among those who visited him and his wife every day. He passed away peacefully at his home.

A few days prior, signs simply stating, "Thank you, Chief" started appearing on the McFerren Park billboard, the Lorraine Theatre marquee and outside local restaurants and businesses.

"I wish Mark could have gotten out to see the signs," Susie Drollinger posted on Facebook on July 4, writing that her husband was "totally overwhelmed" by the outpouring of support he received. "He would have been humbled beyond words."

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