One veteran police lieutenant reflected on his more than 20-year career as he prepared to retire from his hometown agency this month.
Lieutenant Randy Willis started full-time with the Lincolnton Police Department in 1991 after switching careers at age 36.
“I wanted to make a difference and help people,” he said.
Willis felt incomplete and unsatisfied with every other previous job he had maintained including serving as an auto mechanic and manufacturing worker.
He credited his stepfather, W. C. Wehunt, as the biggest influence behind his law enforcement career.
Wehunt worked as a reserve officer for Lincolnton Police Department during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Just three years after Willis joined the force, he was promoted to sergeant followed by a second promotion to his current lieutenant rank in recent years.
The western Lincoln County native and Lincolnton High School graduate, now in his 50s, will never forget the honor and recognition he felt when he received his advanced law enforcement certificate in 2003 — the highest award an officer can obtain, he said.
Willis noted it takes an officer much time and training to achieve the certificate.
Despite his spirited mindset at the start of his career — a desire to triumph over all area crime — he soon learned his aspirations didn’t align with reality.
“You can’t conquer the world,” he said, “but that’s what all the younger people are thinking.”
While Willis revealed he has collected numerous “war stories” over the years, coming close to dying on more than one occasion — his safety kept intact by “divine intervention” — he said he doesn’t regret his career choice.
“This is a very dangerous job, and you have to be careful constantly to protect yourself, your fellow officers and the public,” Willis said. “You can’t take anything for granted. Know that nobody, no arrest, no car stop, nothing can be too simple; that’s the one that’ll get you — the one that looks simple and easy.”
If anything, his experiences have motivated him to encourage amateur officers to stay vigilant at all times, never letting down their guard.
He described one of the more chilling events of his career as an incident involving him and another officer upon exiting their patrol vehicle one shift.
Willis said the men heard a gunshot and had no idea who or where it originated.
“It was very scary,” he said.
In order to keep sane, Willis and his fellow city officers often joke and kept light-hearted moments a common occurrence.
One officer even nicknamed him “General,” followed by “Colonel,” after flipping through a Civil War-themed magazine and finding a man whom he thought looked similar to Willis.
Even the police chief has been known to call the lieutenant by his alias, Willis said.
While Sunday was the officer’s official last day with Lincolnton Police, he won’t be leaving the career field upon retirement from the city department.
Willis said he is scheduled to start Sept. 2 with Gardner-Webb University’s campus police department.
He hoped the transition would be a stress reliever and the job more low key.
“I don’t want to stop being in law enforcement,” Willis said. “I want to always be affiliated with it in some way.”
He described leaving Lincolnton Police Department, the only force of which he’s ever been a part, as bitter-sweet.
“The biggest thing that I will miss will be the people that I have worked with all these years — some have gone, some have passed away, and some are still here,” Willis said.
“It’s pretty hard to do (leave) when you’ve done it for so long…it’s scary — changing your whole life, but there comes a point in time in life when you need to move on.”
For a majority of his career, Willis tackled night shift, changing to day shift around five years ago.
“It’s like different jobs working day and night,” he said.
Willis felt night shift to be a more dangerous period primarily because fewer agency workers are on-hand to respond to emergencies.
“You just have your little crew,” he said.
The most important lesson Willis learned during his time as a city officer was to never forget his roots.
He made a promise to himself early on that no matter what position he found himself in — patrol officer or lieutenant — he would remember his traditional, Lincoln County upbringing and lead by example, never asking a fellow employee or lower-ranked officer to complete a task he wasn’t also willing to do.
Willis plans to remain in Lincoln County with his wife Michelle, despite the long commute to his new Boiling Springs job.
The couple has three children.