North Dakota police chaplain retires after 41 years
In 1981 Jim Hessler founded the Dickinson Police Department’s chaplaincy program, providing comfort to officers and civilians in times of tragedy. He’s been an asset to his community ever since.
DICKINSON, N.D. — Answering the call to serve and protect one’s community, those who wear a law enforcement badge often live courageous and challenging lives. For this reason, the people of the Western Edge largely support their local law enforcement agencies and personnel.
Being in law enforcement has been described more akin to a calling, than a job by those who wear the badge. Who better to understand this calling than the police chaplain, who after four decades closed his lengthy public service career on Friday.
Jim Hessler has provided spiritual guidance, counseling and comfort to officers and others in the community experiencing a crisis. He also delivered death notifications to family members of the deceased. Hessler recently retired from this role, and was honored by the Dickinson Police Department during a ceremony to celebrate his career at Dickinson State University on Thursday.
Hessler earned a master’s degree from Central Bible College in 1962 and was ordained as a minister three years later. His career serving God as a youth pastor among other roles took him all over the state to Minot, Cavalier and Mandan. He was also the Dean of Students at Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, North Dakota. Eventually he settled in Dickinson and became the pastor at River of Life Church International 1978, from which he will also retire this June.
“My brother Larry was in law enforcement. And he told me, ‘Jim you really need to get into chaplaincy. There needs to be someone in Dickinson that can assist in the area of being with police during difficult times,” Hessler said.
He then took his brother’s advice by creating a chaplaincy program for the Dickinson Police Department in 1981. Noticing how successful that was, the Stark County Sheriff’s Department and North Dakota Highway Patrol called on him as needed and ultimately established their own programs with Hessler’s guidance.
One of the hardest times he endured was the death of three young DSU college students who drowned in 2009 after accidentally driving their vehicle into a rural pond. The women included Kyrstin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson.
“That was a tough time to be there with their parents while they were waiting to find out what happened to the young ladies. That was a very difficult time,” he said. “I should have written a book. In 41 years, I don’t know how many death notifications I have made.”
Hessler also noted that alerting people that someone close them has committed suicide can be especially challenging.
“Those were also very emotional times,” he said. “Parents or relatives will say, ‘I could have done more.’ And they start to blame themselves or they become angry, you know, ‘Why did he or she do this to us?’ Those are the swings that people go through, you just have to be there and be steady.”
Hessler, 85, explained how he realized it was the right time to retire when he was called out to a local motel.
“I sat down on the hard floor there and talked with three people. Then they had to get up to talk with the detective,” he said. “I had to use the wall to get up. I said, it’s time for retirement.”
Ultimately, he pointed to God for what he’s accomplished here.
“I want to give God credit in this, because God was the one who gave me this compassion for the city and for law enforcement,” Hessler said, emphasizing the importance of prayer. “It’s important that we give credit where credit is due.”
Stark County Sheriff’s Lt. Eldon Meher offered kind words and wished Hessler well in retirement.
“What I can say is that in 41 years, you’ve covered a pretty wide swath. You’ve impacted my life, and the lives of officers throughout this community and this region,” Meher said.
Pastors Michael Wolters and Joe Stefalo will take over the Dickinson Police Chaplaincy, with Wolters leading it. Wolters, who also leads Redeemer Lutheran Church, has been with the department since 2011. Stefalo is also a pastor at River of Life, and began volunteering his time to the program earlier this year.
“Only God himself knows how many hours you’ve spent in serving the department and our community; or the countless times you’ve set aside what you were doing to go assist someone,” Wolters said to Hessler. “As we think about all you’ve done over the years, we also pause to give thanks to your wife and to your congregation.”
Hessler noted the department also held a celebration in 2006 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his chaplaincy.
“They installed me as an honorary policeman,” he said. “So I just jokingly tell ‘em I’ll be over there to see them. But I said, I may ornery instead of honorary.”
Hessler also said he’s proud to have such a wonderful family.
“I have two daughters. Then my wife Lois, she really honored the police department with her amazing peanut brittle that she would have every Christmas. Everybody was sure to get some of that,” he said.