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From wrangling bad guys to wrangling cattle

For years, Tom Martin has lived in two different worlds.

One involves uniforms, badges and the squawk of police radios. The second encompasses cowboy hats, miles of fence, horses, cattle and rope.

At the end of December, Martin will say goodbye to the police career he has wholeheartedly embraced for 28 years and plunge into the constant chores of fixing fence, cattle ranching, team roping and travel.

Martin, 51, is retiring Dec. 28 as one of three commanders with the Merced Police Department. He began his law enforcement career as a reserve officer in 1977 and advanced to patrolman, detective, patrol sergeant, detective sergeant and, finally, commander.

During service under four police chiefs, he has worked property crimes, narcotics, homicides, gangs, evidence and crime scene processing, media relations and administration.

"This (police work) is what I've been doing my whole adult life," Martin said, "but I've had my feet planted in a couple of worlds, including the Western way of life. I travel in both worlds easily. Some people focus their sole attention on the job of police officer. While I love this work, the other keeps you grounded."

Football is what got Martin into police work. While playing as a defensive lineman on the California State University, Fresno, Bulldog football team in 1977, he met Larry Fister, originally a Merced policeman and now a Merced City Fire Department captain.

Fister talked Martin into becoming a reserve police officer. That way he would be eligible to play in the annual "Pig Bowl" football game at Merced College, which pitted Merced police officers against sheriff's deputies. Becoming a reserve officer as well as a gridiron gladiator became a "great turn of events for me," Martin said.

"It didn't take long to fall in love with what I'm doing. You could make a difference in people's lives. This is one of the greatest professions in the world; it's a career, not a job. I have no regrets."

Merced Police Department Chief Russ Thomas regrets Martin is leaving. Thomas said Martin will be sorely missed and tough to replace.

"He has been an absolute gem, and we're going to miss him," Thomas said. "He has been more help than he knows. All those years of experience can't be transferred. He has been a strong supporter of attempts to grow this department in a different direction."

On his family's three-generation cattle ranch in the Mariposa area, there are a large number of cows and miles of fence, some of it 100 years old. That means a cattle rancher is constantly mending fence, something Martin has done since his high school days.

Born in Corcoran and raised in Merced, Martin graduated from Merced High School in 1974 and Merced College in 1977, with an associate of arts degree in general education. He followed that with a year at CSU Fresno before the law enforcement career intervened. He received a bachelor's degree in business management in 2004 from the University of Phoenix.

Martin counts retired Cmdr. Wally Broughton as a mentor and primary influence in his life. "He taught me how to be a crime fighter," Martin said.

Broughton, who retired in 2002 after 31 years' service, said Martin is the department's most decorated officer and has been shot at six times. Martin has received a Medal of Valor from the State Attorney General's office and two Medals of Honor from the Merced Police Department.

"He is the kind of guy you want to go to war with," Broughton said. "He's your friend for life. He was a fast learner; the student became the teacher and the teacher became the student." He met Martin at age 16 while playing football at Merced High School.

Martin recalls he was involved in three separate shooting incidents during his career. As a brand-new officer, Martin and Officer Jerry Price were on the trail of robbers who had already stuck up two Merced liquor stores.

They positioned themselves at a Yosemite Park Way liquor store just as a shotgun-wielding robber came out of the door. Martin chased the robber, who shot at him, wounding him in the legs. The robber, who was from Mariposa, was killed in the exchange. Martin said he didn't realize he himself had been shot until someone else pointed it out to him.

Shots also whizzed by but no one ultimately was hit in a confrontation with a criminal street gang member in South Merced. During a Hmong New Year celebration in December 1999, Martin helped chase gun-carrying suspects along Highway 99 from Merced to Atwater. They were peppering patrol cars and trucks with volleys from a semi-automatic pistol. Officer Bob Gilbert was wounded during that pursuit.

Price, who retired in 1994 after 23 years, said Martin was a "real good street cop." Officers didn't need to worry if Martin, a self-motivated man, was there to back you up, Price recalled.

Retired Lt. John Hannah said Martin was a go-getter and a likeable guy. Hannah retired in February 1979 after 25 years of service.

"Fortunately, that (shootings) didn't happen very often," Martin said. "I worked with some really outstanding people. The biggest thing is did I make a difference? I would like people to think of me that I did make a difference, not just put in my time."

Martin said retired Tulare County Sheriff Bob Wiley also was a major influence on him. Wiley was a world-class calf roper who Martin met during roping competitions. Martin said Wiley taught him that a good officer needs to make the citizens' problems his own and work hard to correct them.

After a little over a year as a reserve police officer, Martin went through the police academy. He spent six months as a Livingston police officer until he was hired by the Merced Police Department in the fall of 1979.

Retirement will give Martin and his wife, Amanda, a few more chances to travel. A steer wrestler for 15 years, he still does jackpot team roping and competes off and on with the senior pro rodeo association. Hunting and fishing also factor in as favorite Martin pastimes.

Martin has two sons, Tommy Robert, 26, and Morgan Staneart, 17, a high school junior. His eldest son completed two tours of duty in Iraq.

Martin's parents, Jesse and Rose Martin, are the strongest influence personally and professionally in his life. Martin said his folks taught him the value of hard work and made both him and his brother strong men. "While the job has its ups and downs, I wouldn't change any of this and I mean that seriously. It helps make you part of who you are," Martin said.

A retirement party is planned Dec. 27 at 6 p.m. at the Italo-American Lodge at 18th and U streets. Reservations are due Dec. 1, and the cost is $25 per person for a prime rib or chicken dinner.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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