Sheriff Denny Nau has been an iconic figure in Centre County for years. His white Stetson has proclaimed his office as loudly as his shiny badge, telling people that — like a hero in an old-time Western — this is one of the good guys.
On Friday, Nau confirmed he will be hanging up that hat at the end of 2015, when his term concludes.
“That is true,” he told the Centre Daily Times in a quiet announcement of his retirement next year. “It’s just time.”
It isn’t that he is tired of it, or that he doesn’t like it anymore.
“I really enjoy it. I just have things I want to do in life,” Nau said.
Namely, he wants to spend more time in a kayak and casting his line into Centre County trout streams. He also wants to travel across America and visit national treasures such as Yellowstone and Yosemite.
That will be a big change for a guy who has been in uniform his entire adult life. The end of his term will cap 24 years of running the show as county sheriff. For 24 years before that, he was a Pennsylvania state trooper. Before picking law enforcement as his career, he joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. It was that background, he thinks, that helped him put his stamp on the department.
“The Marine Corps was about pride and tradition. Same with the state police. Pride and tradition. I tried to do the same thing here,” Nau said.
Ask him his greatest career achievement and he will point to one of the biggest challenges the courthouse has faced: the child sex abuse hearings and trial of retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was arrested in November 2011 and convicted in June 2012. Bellefonte was deluged with press and other onlookers; Nau is pleased that his department was able to handle it in a safe and orderly fashion for everyone.
He remembers the planning stages for handling the proceedings, talking to his staff, and saying “We don’t want to have another Jack Ruby.” He shook his head, recalling that some of his younger officers didn’t get the reference to the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald had been detained in the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963 during a jail transfer.
That underscores another point of pride for him: the fact that his department has served as an incubator for officers who come to learn law enforcement. More than 40 former Nau deputies are police officers from the Centre Region to Altoona to Pittsburgh, or serve as state troopers.
“Here is where they get their foot in the door,” Nau said.
When he took the reins of the department, there were seven full-time deputies and two part-timers. They transported about 300 prisoners a year. Today, Nau has nine full-time deputies, four more contracted for the University Park airport, and even more part-time officers in the security detail for the courthouse, the annex next door and the Willowbank Building. From his desk at what was once the county jail, he can monitor every exit, every courtroom, every holding area.
“When I came, everything was done on typewriters,” he said. That’s not all that has changed since he took over in 1991. Today, all courthouse processes — criminal and civil — are handled with up-to-date software. That tiny jail on the hill above the courthouse has been replaced with the Centre County Correctional Facility. Prisoners are as likely to have a videoconference hearing from the jail or prison as to be transported.
The department Nau built has earned accolades from fellow Centre County civil servants.
“It would be more than appropriate to talk about his leadership and his fine service, both as a trooper and as our sheriff. However, the best compliment that I can offer is that he is a great guy and a true friend,” Judge Bradley P. Lunsford wrote in an email. “His positive impact on the court and his commitment to public service and safety will be truly missed. He will depart his position with the respect of the (c)ourt and those who served under him. We all wish him well but we also know that his service to our community will not end with retirement.”
“I think the sheriff has served us well,” said county Administrator Tim Boyde. “Whoever follows him is going to have big shoes to fill.”
And a big hat.