A Life: William S. Wadsworth, 1958 — 2013; ‘We’ll Never Know How Many Lives He Touched’
Bill Wadsworth in an undated Claremont Police official photograph. (Courtesy photograph)
Cornish — Early in Alexander Scott’s internship with the Claremont Police Department during the late 1980s, the future police chief joined the growing fan club for then-Patrolman Bill Wadsworth.
“The first thing I noticed, and that continued to stand out, was his positive attitude,” Scott recalled last week. “He was always willing to help, always had a smile on his face. Sometimes, that can be hard to find in law enforcement.”
Harder still to keep ON the force. So upon his return to Claremont as chief in 2003, imagine Scott’s relief to find Bill Wadsworth, by then a sergeant 17 years into his career, still winning friends and influencing people — and not just colleagues or victims of crimes and accidents.
“He could make an arrest, and so often the person would thank him for the way he treated them,” Scott said. “He was an important piece in moving this agency to where we’ve got it today.
“Bill embodies our mission statement, which basically boils down to ‘The compassionate delivery of police services.’ “The greatest thing about Bill, it wasn’t one incident in his career that shone through. It was a consistent, strong work ethic, and a strong sense of compassion — treating people with dignity and respect.”
All of which flowed back Wadsworth’s way in waves during the year leading to his death from pancreatic cancer on Feb. 23 at 54.
“When he was being treated at DHMC, all his co-workers at the station pulled together a schedule that they kept on the wall, so they’d know, ‘It’s my day to take Bill for his treatment,’ ” recalled Cornish Police Chief Doug Hackett, to whom Wadsworth, a longtime resident of Cornish, often provided backup in emergencies. “You always enjoyed your ride with Bill. The conversations and the discussions. Even the younger officers looked forward to their turn.”
So did fellow active-duty retiree Bill Wilmot, a longtime Claremont deputy chief whose tenure coincided with all but the last of Wadsworth’s 20 years of active duty between 1986 and 2006 — during which Wadsworth amassed a parade of medals, commendations and awards for his work, over time, as a patrol officer, a patrol supervisor, a juvenile officer, a detective, and an instructor in marksmanship and defensive tactics.
“Right to almost the end, he was still coming in to help with technical stuff — computers, record-keeping on fingerprints, all kinds of things,” recalled Wilmot, who now manages accreditation and grants on a part-time basis. “So when he couldn’t drive anymore, he came in with this list. He wasn’t expecting to fill all the slots, but within hours, the list was full. Everybody here wanted to be with him — secretaries, police officers, retired guys.
“Everybody here learned some sort of lesson: the need to give, to hug your family. Appreciate life, because it’s fleeting.”
Fleeting and, in Wadsworth’s case, full: When not on the beat, he taught generations of officers how to handle firearms — by example as much as by instruction — as the Claremont Police Department’s range master.
“He always prided himself in his shooting prowess,” Wilmot said. “There was always good-natured banter about who was the best shot, but he held the title of Top Gun most of the time, except when I had a particularly good outing — which was not as often as he did.”
Wadsworth shared that passion — for safety as well as marksmanship — during the many years he served as senior scouting coordinator of Cornish Boy Scout Troop 332, under the sponsorship of the United Church of Cornish.
“When my son joined the Cub Scouts, Bill and his dad (William S. Wadsworth Jr.) did a BB-gun shoot for the kids, I think it was 12 years ago,” Cornish resident Leo Maslan recalled. “He was a guy who was willing to go out there on a cold November day and put that kind of time in. He didn’t have any boys of his own in the program anymore, so that was pretty cool of him, to make that available.”
United Church pastor Dale Nicholas long ago lost count of how many times Wadsworth went the extra mile for the Cornish scouts. And she still smiles at the memory of Wadsworth organizing the church’s annual Scout Sunday in February of 2012, while Rev. Dale, as her parishioners call her, was recovering from knee-replacement surgery.
“He pulled the bulletin together, picked out the hymns, the whole nine yards,” Nicholas said. “He even did the sermon.” Which wowed youngsters and grownups alike.
“He really geared the sermon to talk to the boys,” Maslan said. “How to relate Scout law to their lives.”
With Scouts, with troubled youngsters he encountered on duty, and with Claremont and Cornish elementary and middle-school students he visited under the anti-drug-abuse program DARE in the 1990s, Wadsworth preferred to teach than to preach.
“He was very well-received,” Hackett remembers. “Everybody flocked to him when he walked in the building. The trick was that he was laid back. Whether it was a group of kids or a tight situation on the street, He was the voice of reason. Every person was a human being to him. He knew that if you go into a situation all jacked up, you jacked up the suspect, too. His approach was always equal to the situation. If he met somebody he could talk down, he would. If he could de-escalate the situation, he would.”
Some of the scouts, students, suspects and arrestees Wadsworth helped steer onto a better path turned out for his wake and funeral.
“There was not a shortage of people who said, ‘He arrested me, and then I turned my life around,’ ” Wilmot said. “ ‘I changed my direction because of Bill.’ ”
Much as friends and neighbors and co-workers changed the way they looked at life because of Bill.
“He was just always there,” said Reverend Dale, who took over as pastor about the same time Wadsworth joined the church, and who officiated at his marriage to his wife, Beth, in 1989. “It didn’t matter if you had a computer problem for him to fix, working with the church, or running up against the law. He was really invested in people.
“We’ll never know how many lives he touched.” He often did as much by example as by reaching out.
“A few years back, when we had that big windstorm that caused a lot of outages and did so much damage, it took down a lot of the trees on his property,” Hackett said. “His response to it was, ‘Well, at least I can sell the trees for firewood, and I’ll get a field out of it.’ He always found that silver lining.”
Wadsworth had to search a little harder during the time that Beth fought breast cancer, and after Beth’s recovery, harder still upon learning of his own cancer diagnosis.
“He got beyond the question of, ‘Why me?’ ” Nicholas said. “It was never really an issue.” Not even when the current Claremont police chief crossed paths with Wadsworth about a week before he died.
“Even during his most trying times, he had the same attitude,” Scott said. “He was still Bill.”