Kowalczyk reflects on four decades in law enforcement – Leader-Telegram

Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk plays cards Tuesday with inmate Billy Black in the jail. In his career spanning more than 40 years, Kowalczyk has spent a great deal of time in the jail, getting to know inmates, playing cribbage and cards with them. He will retire on Monday.

Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk plays cards Tuesday with inmate Billy Black in the jail. In his career spanning more than 40 years, Kowalczyk has spent a great deal of time in the jail, getting to know inmates, playing cribbage and cards with them. He will retire on Monday.
CHIPPEWA FALLS — A few years ago, Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk learned that a female inmate in his jail was headed to prison, and she had a young child. Once she departed for prison, she wasn’t likely to see the child anytime soon.
“I made arrangements with the family to have the child brought down (to the jail),” Kowalczyk recalled.
He went into the jail and told the woman she had an appointment. Instead, it turned into a tearful reunion with lots of hugs.
“I do this a lot; I say there is an attorney out there, and I surprise them with their children, or a signficant other,” Kowalczyk said. “I wish I had filmed this. It really makes their day. I like to do that, especially at Christmas.”
Kowalczyk has a history of interracting with the inmates in his jail and can tell a number of stories like this one. He plays cards and cribbage with them, and has given hundreds of haircuts to anyone who wanted a buzz cut.
“I do spend a lot of time back in the jail,” Kowalczyk said. “I go back there every day, and try to be helpful to them. I can hardly go down the street without someone saying, ‘thank you for the time you’ve spent with me.’”
Calling it a career
Kowalczyk, who turned 66 in April, didn’t seek re-election this year after more than 40 years in law enforcement. His last day of work will be Monday. Travis Hakes, who won the sheriff’s race in November by defeating Jim Kowalczyk’s younger brother, Chris Kowalczyk, will be sworn in Tuesday.
His office is now nearly barren, as the patches, medals and momentos he’s collected in his career are now packed up.
A Boyd native, Kowalczyk began working for a construction company upon graduating from high school in 1974. While they were working in Bloomer, he met officer Gary Tozer, and heard his stories about his career.
“After listening to Gary on many occasions, I said, ‘this is something I wanted to do,’” he said.
Kowalczyk joined the Cadott Police Department in 1977, the Chippewa County traffic police in 1978 and has been with the sheriff’s department since they merged. He had stints as an investigator, the area SWAT team, and two years in the West Central Drug Task Force. Kowalczyk was elected sheriff in 2006 to replace retiring sheriff Doug Ellis, and won reelection in 2010, 2014 and 2018. During his tenure, he was among the first to join the West Central Drug Task Force, he served as captain of the SWAT team, and he worked in investigations.
He could have retired back in 2009, based on a combination of his age and years of service.
“I was going to be a one- or two-term sheriff,” he said. “As the years went by, it was harder and hard to say I wasn’t going to run again.”
Accolades roll in
Chippewa Falls Police Chief Matt Kelm praised Kowalczyk for holding monthly meetings with all the police chiefs in the county, where they can talk about the problems and issues they are seeing.
“He’s helped foster a relationship with the other law enforcement executives in the county, and it’s a real benefit to everyone in the county,” Kelm said. “Criminals don’t follow jurisdictional lines.’
Kelm described Kowalczyk as a “fixture in Chippewa County law enforcement,” and it will be a big change for everyone.
“He’s always been willing to help out at a drop of a hat,” Kelm said. “He clearly cares about the community.”
Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald became sheriff is 2008 and said Kowalczyk has always been available for advice and support.
“He’s been a great leader for his department, and a good role model for me,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a good guy you can always call. I was able to learn from him in the beginning. If we had a tough case, he would call and say, ‘how can we help?’”
Chippewa County Judge Steve Gibbs, who previously was a district attorney, praised Kowalczyk for his tenure in office.
“He’s been a sheriff for the people, and always been very approachable for inmates, his staff and elected officials,” Gibbs said. “He always has a smile on his face, and an upbeat attitude, every day. He’s been a great servant for our county.”
Chippewa County Board Chairman Dean Gullickson, who previously was a Department of Natural Resources warden, echoed the praise for Kowalczyk.
“He was professional, he was attentive to details. He was sharp, he was an all-around great officer,” Gullickson said. “You couldn’t find a better person to be sheriff of Chippewa County.”
Remembering Zunker
When asked about the most difficult point of his career, he immediately pointed to the death of patrolman Jason Zunker, who was struck while directing traffic on U.S. 53 near Bloomer. He died the next day, on Jan. 5, 2008. He vividly remembered getting the call that Zunker had been hit.
“The ambulance was on the way to Eau Claire,” he recalled. “I had never met (his wife) Lisa; I had no idea where she lived.”
He went to her home in Augusta and knocked on the door.
“I didn’t even have to say a word,” he said. “Lisa knew something was drastically wrong. That ride from her house to the hospital was the lonngest ride of my life. She had questions, and I didn’t have answers.”
The death hit him hard.
“It was a very tragic accident,” he said. “He’s one of the finest law enforcement officers I ever met. That was very hard; you don’t expect those things to happen. To lose a person like Jason, it was very hard.”
A long career
Kowalczyk said technology has vastly changed how law enforcement perform their duties.
“When I started, we purchased our own cars,” he said. “We had no cages. We didn’t have hand-held portables. Personnel was limited; we had maybe one or two patrolmen for the entire county.”
As sheriff, he frequently would travel with the department’s transportation officer, heading from coast to coast to pick up inmates who had been arrested and had warrants back in Chippewa County.
Kowalczyk is proud of how they expanded the “Click-it or ticket” program to encourage seatbelt use, and he enjoyed getting to work with numerous state agencies over his career.
“I established a lot of good relationships,” he said.
As sheriff, Kowalczyk oversees 104 full- or part-time employees and manages a jail that routinely houses 125 inmates daily.
Kowalczyk and his wife, Nancy, still live in Boyd. He has two sons, Aaron and Corey, and six grand-children. He now can frequently be found at high school volleyball and basketball games, watching his grandchildren compete.
He said his goal in office was to serve the public and keep people safe.
“It’s been a very rewarding career,” he said. “To do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I want to thank Chippewa County for giving me the opportunity to protect and serve. It’s been a wonderful career.”
Contact: chris.vetter@ecpc.com
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