RUGBY After more than 30 years in law enforcement, an area lawman is hanging up his six-shooter for good.
Pierce County Sheriff Robert Graber will retire on Dec. 31, partly due to health complications and partly because "it's just time," he said.
Graber has been the sheriff for 11 years, having completed the third year of his third term.
"For all practical purposes, it's easier and better for me to go now, instead of waiting until later," he said with a smile.
A Rolette-area native, Graber also spent 20 years in law enforcement in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. He retired from that area in 1990, and was actually out of law enforcement for about nine years, he said.
Graber said he initially left the University of North Dakota to go to Virginia to get a summer job with a college friend who was from that area.
"Thirty-three years later, I came back," he chuckled. "That (summer job idea) didn't work so well."
"But then I came home, and this is going to be my retirement home, too," Graber said.
The Pierce County Commission has appointed Matt Lunde, who served as a Pierce County deputy under Graber for about nine years, to finish out Graber's term. Lunde takes over on Jan. 1.
Then, Graber said, it's up to Lunde to decide if he wants to run for sheriff in 2010.
Asked if it would break his heart that he didn't get to campaign for election, Graber responded with a quick, "Ah, no, no."
"Not really," he said. "That's a lot of work, a lot of anticipation and a lot of not knowing what's going to happen."
Graber said some differences between being in law enforcement in North Dakota versus Virginia are stark.
"In the county there, they had over a million-and-a-half people," Graber said. "The department there by the time I left was between 1,200 and 1,500 officers.
"When I started, I was number 300 or so. It had really grown since I started there."
Still, many aspects are the same, he said.
"Law enforcement is law enforcement," he said. "Similar-type things still happen, they just don't happen as frequently."
Graber said one of the biggest challenges in Pierce County is one of pure geography.
"It's difficult to cover all areas just because it's so wide open," he said. "The population is spread out over a lot of square miles. It's not easy to keep it patrolled like I would like to.
"But we do what we can, and that's all we can do."
One of the most trying aspects of being sheriff was the physical and emotional grind of never being "off the clock," Graber said.
"Sheriffs in a lot of these rural areas act as coroners," he said. "You can get a call at any time of the day or night, but it usually (seems to) happen in the middle of the night."
"I guess you could kind of call that the 'down side,' but I knew what to expect when I took the job. But as I get older, the less quickly I bounce back from being up all night long," he laughed.
A bout with joint disease has left Graber unable to effectively run, and although he's fit for desk duty, "as a rural sheriff, you're right out there (on patrol)."
"If my physical limitation was the reason for somebody getting hurt, that's something that I would have a great deal of difficulty living with," Graber said.
When asked what the greatest "up side" was about being sheriff, he cited equipment upgrades made possible by grant monies.
"It has saved this county hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we've got equipment that's pretty well up-to-date," Graber said. "And that's a big plus, because just like anything else, law enforcement is ever-changing. If you don't keep up with the technology, you've got a handicap you're working against."
Another big plus during his tenure was the advent of the Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center, formerly known as the North Center Corrections and Rehabilitation Center. The new jail and law enforcement center is a major improvement over the old jail downtown that had become obsolete.
"This new facility has had some rough times since it was opened, but now she's up and running and doing really well," Graber said.
The biggest change is that the sheriff is now the administrator of the jail, and he can in turn appoint an administrator. Elaine Little, who has long been in charge at the facility through its various name changes, is still in that job.
"It makes a big difference in where the buck stops, so to speak," Graber said. "And we've been very fortunate to have a very good administrator over there, and that really helps."
He easily rattles off a half-dozen hobbies on a list of "plenty" of things he'll do in retirement.
Graber was asked about some of his most memorable cases, but he declined to really go into specifics.
"I've had some pretty intense moments, let's just say," he said. "Where it was down to a matter of you don't know if you're going to get 'done in' or somebody else is."
Reflecting in his last few days in office, the 65-year-old Graber has the slightly weary but content nonetheless smile that comes with the satisfaction of a job well done.
"I'm old enough. It's time to go," he said.