After 55 years, beloved courthouse chief still no plans to retire
Korean War veteran, then a cop, and now, at 79, still a Cook County cop
Sitting behind his desk, handgun holstered at his side, memories of dead kids, war and serial killers in his brain, Chief Ralph DeBartolo, boss of the Rolling Meadows courthouse, is one tough interview.
Oh, the chief is fun, very polite, thoughtful, answers every question asked, and couldn't be nicer or more accommodating. What makes him difficult to interview are the deputies who hear their chief being interviewed and can't resist popping in to voice their opinions: "He's the greatest." "Best chief ever." "He's very fair." "Just a great guy." "Love him."
And so it goes, interruption after interruption.
"You do a great job. The people out here love you," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says of DeBartolo.
DeBartolo's "open-door policy" is more than a mere policy. It's a way of life at the suburban courthouse where DeBartolo, a former Chicago police officer, has been in charge of security since he came out of retirement 23 years ago.
"I've been working since I was 12 years old," says DeBartolo, who turns 79 Monday, celebrates 55 years in law enforcement at the end of this month and has no plans to retire. "I'm just not the type to stay home."
Although home, he is quick to add, couldn't be better. Explaining how the life he loves is due in part to the love of his life, DeBartolo jumps on the phone to call Helen, his wife for nearly 56 years. They've gone on 49 cruises and find it easier to name countries they haven't visited than those they have.
"He was good-looking, a really nice guy," says his wife, remembering the summer Friday they met at Chicago's North Avenue beach. She was Helen DeKiel then, a 17-year-old high school kid from Harwood Heights, wearing her bathing suit and waiting for her girlfriends. He was Ralph DeBartolo, a 23-year-old Korean War veteran who was driving trucks, working construction and waiting for life's opportunities. The chief smiles sheepishly, almost in disbelief as he repeats the first words he said to her:
"Didn't you and I go to different schools together?" DeBartolo says, laughing at the memory.
That night, he took her to a local social club and then on to a family party, where she met relatives, including his mother, on their first date.
"He has a lot of charm and he has a nice way about him," Helen DeBartolo says. "He's the kind of person people want to be with, but he's not a pushover. They know he means business. He's a guy people want to go along with."
They married Aug. 25, 1956, when she was 18, two months after she graduated from high school. She worked as a hair model in the 1960s and then as a hospitality representative in Chicago for the casinos in Las Vegas. Her husband knew what he wanted to do.
"I always wanted to be a policeman from the days I was playing cops and robbers," says DeBartolo, who saw an ad seeking Chicago police recruits and immediately applied. He still keeps the piece of paper from March 30, 1957, noting that he scored an 830 on his police officer's test and moved to the top of the hiring list.
"I was called right away," remembers DeBartolo, who also has his first pay stub after two weeks of walking the beat — $197.25 gross and $153.63 take-home pay.
He worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, just as his widowed mother, Catherine, did after DeBartolo's father was killed in a traffic accident at age 37. DeBartolo was 17 and helped his mom, who worked at White Castle, look after his three younger brothers and two little sisters.
"So I know what hard work is," says DeBartolo, who had jobs even when his father was alive and running a tavern. As a boy he shined shoes, delivered newspapers, hauled groceries in a wagon and was a "pin boy," setting up pins at a bowling alley in the age before automatic pinsetters.
"I worked at the bowling alley from right after school to midnight," he remembers.
He had been a police officer a year and a half when he drove home after work the morning of Dec. 1, 1958, and saw a commotion at the local Catholic grade school in the parish where his oldest son had been baptized — the fire at Our Lady of the Angels grade school that killed 92 children and three nuns.
"I was still in my uniform," DeBartolo says. "We were following the firefighters up the stairs."
In a smokey second-floor classroom, he saw a horrific scene.
"They were all against the blackboard," DeBartolo says, recalling how those students and two nuns apparently gathered to pray together amid the chaos and panic. "I carried several dead boys. They would put a child in my arms and put a blanket over them."
As a combat veteran who spent 18 months in Korea, DeBartolo was familiar with death. He was in a two-man crew that hoisted the largest artillery shells into the guns that would launch them miles across enemy lines. The hillsides were littered with land mines and snipers, but his platoon lost only one soldier.
"He stepped on a land mine on Thanksgiving Day," DeBartolo remembers. Freezing in his one-man pup tent as temperatures dropped well below zero, "I didn't care if I died. It was so cold in Korea," DeBartolo says softly, as if he can't imagine ever feeling that way. He sent every one of his paychecks home to his mother, who was thrilled when he returned in one piece.
Walking his police beat in an era when portable two-way radios were limited to Dick Tracy in the funny pages, DeBartolo had to run three blocks to the police "call box" when he needed assistance. DeBartolo made some prominent pinches, arresting armed robbers and the like, that earned a promotion, making him one of the youngest detectives on the force.
For the last 17 years of his time with the Chicago Police Department, DeBartolo was the personal bodyguard for the psychiatrists who helped determine the sanity of mass murderers, serial killers and other heinous criminal suspects.
"When you are insane, you don't know right from wrong," DeBartolo says. "When you're crazy, you know what you're doing, but you don't care."
The latter is how he describes John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted of 33 murders of boys and young men and executed in 1994.
"I had (him) in my office," DeBartolo says. "Gacy was just a jokester. He laughed at everything."
For a law enforcement officer with such a grisly past, DeBartolo has a fun-loving spirit.
"He obviously has the law enforcement background, but it's his personality, his ability to get along with people," Dart says of his success.
DeBartolo's office is filled with personal touches. He boasts photos of his son Tony with wife Kim and daughter Gina, who live in Oak Forest; his son Danny with wife Melissa and son Brett, who live in Roselle; but also photographs of his deputies and their families. He's spearheaded countless fundraisers for members of his extended law enforcement community who are coping with losses or fighting diseases.
Having started his career during an era when people of Italian heritage, even police officers, were subject to ethnic slurs and discrimination, DeBartolo was instrumental in the founding of the Italian American Police Officers Association, which funds many of the charities DeBartolo supports. His career and charity work have earned DeBartolo awards from the Order Sons of Italy in America and the Italian American Police Officers Association. He won the 2010 Law Enforcement Award from the Illinois State Bar Association. He's also a regular at the annual St. Jude Police League parade honoring fallen officers.
"I missed one parade in 55 years," says the chief, lamenting how a temporary knee problem forced him to sit out the parade this May. A man who works out on a treadmill five days a week, DeBartolo certainly doesn't appear to be pushing 80.
"It's funny, but his age never comes up. He really is incredible," says Dart. "I'm hoping Ralph will stick around for a while because he does such a fantastic job."
"He's one of the reasons I'm staying on," DeBartolo says of Dart. "He's a policeman's policeman."
DeBartolo tried retirement for a few months in 1989, after 32 years with the Chicago Police Department. Aside from an appearance on "The Price is Right," where he won an $1,800 telescope he still uses before losing the top prize to a fellow contestant on a lucky and controversial spin of the wheel, DeBartolo says he missed work.
"I'm not a golfer. I'm not a handyman," DeBartolo says. The simple act of hanging a picture ended when he broke the drill bit off in the wall.
"I left it in there and I hung the picture on the broken drill," he says.
The 72 officers and staff under his command literally cheer his lack of retirement plans.
"He's always demonstrating strong leadership skills and the ability to work well with others. He's a true pleasure to work with," says Cook County circuit court Judge William O. Maki, the presiding judge of Third Municipal District in Rolling Meadows.
"I treat people the way I want to be treated. We don't get intimidated, and we don't intimidate," DeBartolo says. "When you have a great staff, it makes it a pleasure to come to work. It's my staff that makes me look good."
He sees no reason to retire.
"I picked the life I love," DeBartolo says. "When you have a good life, you wear well."
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