20 years of storytime: How a Naperville cop endeared himself to a generation of children
Naperville police officer Matt Fletcher -- all 6 feet, 4 inches and 300 pounds of him -- means business as he rolls up to the Naper Boulevard Library in his squad car.
For 20 years, Fletcher has endeared himself to a generation of children through his participation in family storytime events at the city's three libraries. The dedication extends to songs, activities and a tour of his squad car, all designed to teach safety to children and make police officers more approachable and accessible.
Up to 200 parents and children participate in the events scheduled several times a year at the Naper Boulevard, Nichols and 95th Street libraries. Through 29 years as a police officer, storytime has become one of the best parts of his job.
"It's a very positive event for the kids and the parents," he said. "Unfortunately, in this day and age, a lot of police contacts are negative. It's nice to have that contact and be a positive part of the community."
The tradition began simply enough: library officials asked him to come out to the Nichols location to handle a parking problem. By the end of the day, he was signed up for storytime.
One visit became two and evolved into trips to all three libraries. Fletcher began lining up his storytime schedule months in advance and found himself in the library's regular calendar of events.
Fletcher's been reading to children for so long, that some of the people he read to 20 years ago are now bringing their own children.
Because of Fletcher's efforts, Naperville Police Chief Jason Arres recently honored him with a Meritorious Service Award.
"He's taken this program on and, in partnering with the library, built it up to what it is, which is a great connector between the community and the police department and putting police in a positive light," Arres said. "Not only does it cover the extremely important topics of reading and safety, but it also teaches kids that police are a trusted part of society they can go to for help when they need it.
"Acts like this don't often get fanfare, but they're hugely impactful," he said.
The impact has an added layer when he reads "Officer Buckle and Gloria" to the children. Written by Peggy Rathmann, the children's story is loosely based on former Naperville mayor -- and police officer -- George Pradel.
Fletcher has read the book so many times, that he's worn out several copies. At one point the book was out of print, so he had to buy one on eBay. A backup copy sits in his locker at the police station, right next to his emergency equipment.
"Officer Fletcher takes time to make sure each child gets a chance to see his cruiser and has a positive experience," said Ellen Fitzgerald, the Nichols Library children's services supervisor. "It's important for kids to understand that police are community helpers and a safe person to turn to when they are in a scary situation."
Fletcher, 51, and his wife, fellow Naperville police officer Dawn Fletcher, each brought three kids to their marriage 10 years ago, so they know all about storytime. Together they used to volunteer as reading mentors at Mill Street Elementary School.
It's one of the many reasons Fletcher was a perfect choice for the library's storytime. He instantly took to the task.
Fletcher's upcoming appearances will be Oct. 6 at the 95th Street Library and Oct. 20 at Nichols Library. Both events start at 10:30 a.m. and will last about 45 minutes.
"It's something different, and it costs the police department nothing," he said. "We get so much bang for the buck with it."
As Fletcher inches close to retirement, though, he knows his storytime days eventually will end. He brings other officers to the events, hoping one or more of them will take it over.
"I'm going to have to find someone to hand it off to," he said. "It's an hour out of my day, and it's so worth it. I get the biggest kick out of it."