Hail to the chief

That was a moving ceremony that took place over at the Dana Thompson Memorial Recreation Park last Saturday. Better known to most area residents as "The Rec Park," the occasion honored one of Manchester's best known citizens from an era now slipping into memories and the history books, but still - in the remarkable way that past events influence the present - exercises its tug and hold over us.

It also served as a sort of introduction of the new Park House, the replacement for the late and unlamented former administrative building that used to occupy the space. That building will certainly be a big improvement over the old facility that was torn down last year and hopefully will lead to more, and more lucrative, uses of the Rec Park.

But the day belonged to remembering the accomplishments of Manchester's former police chief, Dana Thompson, who was killed in the line of duty on Dec. 12, 1972, while investigating a report of a burglary underway at a local pharmacy. The event was a shock to the quiet New England community of Manchester, which, despite the upheavals and turmoil of the time roiling events elsewhere, saw itself as a place where that sort of thing - the murder of a police chief - simply didn't happen here.

A front page editorial on the issue published by the Manchester Journal that week summed the reaction up well.

"Late Tuesday evening, violence of a sort which few thought would ever come to Manchester, snuffed out the life of one of the town's most well-liked and respected citizens as he pursued his duties as police chief of the town.

Dana Thompson was known to many not only as an excellent police officer in the best sense of the word, but also as a personal friend of good humor and full of human compassion.

That his life should be ended in such a senseless manner has brought home in the hardest possible way, the harsh fact that even here we are not immune to the troubles which plague urban areas."

Chief Thompson, as several of the speakers at a relatively short but fitting ceremony noted, was the type of police officer who didn't just sit behind a desk and "manage" his department.

He walked the beat around town and knew virtually everybody. Youngsters who got a little too exuberant might get the message in a circular, but nevertheless clear fashion, that the outer limits of their behavior might need reining in. He carried so much clout and respect within the community that the mere fear of their parents getting a phone call from him advising them that their offspring could be picked up at the police headquarters was sufficient to forestall actions that might be regretted later.

Those were, of course, different times, and may be harder to make work as well today. But it's also hard not to wonder if that's an approach that many police departments are also returning to and embracing.

In any event, it was both fitting and appropriate that the town used the opportunity to remind today's residents of the contributions of an earlier generation of locals who helped make the community what it was, and is today. It may be the case in Manchester and Vermont that the past is still with us in that it shapes who we are are and what we do today. Its silent rhythms remain with us, and while slavish devotion to tradition isn't healthy either, it's often within memories that we find value and meaning.


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