After 28 years, WLPD Capt. Neil Hennelly retires
West Linn Police Captain Neil Hennelly is a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.
And you can hardly blame him, considering the unpredictable path that took him from his childhood home in Staten Island, New York to Eugene and later West Linn, where he spent 28 years with the WLPD before retiring June 29.
"I kind of fell into it," Hennelly said of his police career.
While Hennelly started out as a young man trying to find his way after his family moved across the country, he ended his career as a beloved captain and the longest tenured member of the WLPD.
"In the three years I've been here, he's the most approachable administration staff (member) I've ever worked with," WLPD Officer Jeff Halverson said. "This is a guy who always has an open door. ... He'll ask how your family is; he's interested in you as a person, not just an officer. He remembers what it was like to be a frontline patrol cop."
Growing up in Staten Island, Hennelly had several uncles who were police officers and firefighters, but his own career path was never preordained.
"I wouldn't call it the 'family business,'" Hennelly said.
His father worked for a phone company and that job prompted the family to move to Eugene just after Hennelly graduated from high school. There, Hennelly found a job pumping gas before moving on to a position at the University of Oregon bookstore.
That was the first twist of fate.
"When the store security guys were going to contact a shoplifter outside, they always had a second person (as backup)," Hennelly said. "If there was only one of them on duty, there was a code they sent out over the PA thing, and if there wasn't anybody there they'd say, 'Can you come out?'
"Literally, I just stood there as a witness. I didn't have any training or anything; I was just a tall, skinny kid."
Hennelly struck up friendships with the bookstore security guards and soon learned they were reserve officers in nearby Cottage Grove.
"So I went out and did a couple ride-alongs with them and had a lot of fun — thought it was an interesting job," Hennelly said. "You got to make a difference in the community."
He decided to become a reserve officer himself and graduated from the academy in September 1983. But when he told a Cottage Grove police lieutenant that he wanted to be a reserve officer to see if he liked the work or not, Hennelly was instead hired as a full-time officer.
"He goes, 'Well, you might as well get paid to see if you like it or not,'" Hennelly said.
He remembers Cottage Grove as a mill town that proved to be the perfect spot to hone his craft.
"I learned how to talk to people," he said. "I was kind of a gruff, New York City kid."
After five years, though, he decided to move to Portland and try something else.
"I worked in restaurant equipment sales and leasing for a couple years and realized it was not what I wanted to do," Hennelly said.
But — cue the second twist of fate — Hennelly's sales route took him to several restaurants in West Linn, and something about it struck a chord with him. When he decided to get back into police work, Hennelly applied to every open job he could find — including one at the WLPD.
He got the job, and fate intervened once again when Hennelly went through his pre-employment health screening.
"They found a lump in my throat," he said. "The doctor was like, 'I don't know why I'm checking this ... something is just telling me to dig around in here.
"It turned out I had thyroid cancer at 30, 31, whatever it was."
The cancer was caught early enough for Hennelly to beat it, and he will always be grateful to the doctor who followed a hunch.
"It was a definite life-saving moment," he said.
Hennelly felt a strong tie to the community from the start, and it only grew over time. He would eventually move to West Linn, and always passed up opportunities to move on to other departments when they popped up.
"I really felt strongly that this was the place for me," he said.
Hennelly appreciated the community's support for the department, as well as the emphasis the department placed on working with people.
"We're more about building relationships and helping people," Hennelly said. "You really do make a difference."
But if much of his career played out like a storybook, Hennelly wishes he could have rewritten the ending. When longtime Police Chief Terry Timeus retired in October 2017 following allegations of drunk driving, Hennelly was suddenly thrust into the role of interim chief — a role he held until Timeus' permanent replacement, Terry Kruger, arrived in early June.
"It's not how I planned on ending my career — I'm not happy with that at all," Hennelly said. "I'm an action guy, I'm not a limbo guy, and being an interim (chief) is a limbo position ... no big, major changes, just keep the bus on the highway, out of the trees."
Hennelly added that he received plenty of support from within the department and City Hall, but that didn't quell his frustration.
"It was just a tough road," Hennelly said. "But you do what you do — it's my job to step up."
Halverson, for his part, said Hennelly did exactly what was needed for a department in distress.
"(It) wasn't, 'Oh, now I'm in charge; I'm doing things my way,'" Halverson said. "He knew how to keep the ship running."
Now, though he will continue working several weeks past his official retirement date to help Kruger with the transition process, Hennelly's ship will sail in an entirely different direction.
"My wife is retiring at the same time, same day," he said. "We're going to travel; we've got a weekend getaway place in Newport. ... And between us we have nine grandchildren."
Wherever the path of retirement takes him, Hennelly will be sure of one thing: it happened for a reason.