Former Pacific County Sheriff John Didion died Tuesday following a heart attack. He was 66. Friends and colleagues remember a man of character and class who cared deeply for the community he served.
Didion never regained consciousness after a heart attack at his Naselle home over the weekend. He was brought to Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria, Ore., then transferred to a hospital in Portland, Grays Harbor County Sheriff Rick Scott said, where he remained in critical condition until his death on Tuesday.
“The whole thing just strikes close to home,” Scott said. “We lost a really great guy and a great sheriff.”
Didion served as sheriff from 1998 to 2010, known for his tireless advocacy for law enforcement issues throughout the state. His first career was as a lineman in the National Football League, playing for the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints from 1969 to 1974.
“He talked fondly of having played for Vince Lombardi,” retired Grays Harbor Sheriff Mike Whelan recalled. “He said he had learned a lot from Vince Lombardi, one of the icons of football.”
Didion and his family relocated to Pacific County and his law enforcement career began as a road deputy with the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office. He spent his career there, becoming a DARE officer and then DARE coordinator for Washington state.
“He cared a lot about kids, and about trying to keep kids on the straight and narrow and not have them get into drugs. Because he realized once they got into drugs that crime … happened as a result of that,” Whelan said.
Former Lewis County Sheriff John McCloskey first got to know Didion when he was manager of the Lewis County DARE program.
“I knew him when he was a nobody like me,” he said.
Later, as sheriffs, they worked together advocating on a state level for issues facing rural counties.
“We took those issues on in a broader sense, and formed what we called the Rural Sheriff’s Caucus, and it was really John’s idea,” McCloskey recalled. “John was really the classiest of the bunch, to tell you the truth. He’s a big guy, but he spoke quietly and forcefully. I did not have that skill. I was his evil twin — a third of him in size but an evil twin nonetheless.”
McCloskey said Didion grew into his role as sheriff and leaves a legacy of educating legislators.
“John was very eloquent, very professional, all the things I should have been. … He was just a classy guy who cared an awful lot about Pacific County and the people there,” he said.
Whelan worked with Didion and then-Sen. Mark Doumit on legislation providing additional funding for rural counties cleaning up methamphetamine labs.
“Those of us in rural communities were being inundated by meth labs, and it costs literally in the thousands of dollars to render them safe, and we just don’t have the money for that,” Whelan said. The program “was very successful, and it was John Didion that was the force behind it.”
Didion served as president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, an office he enjoyed using as a “bully pulpit” for issues facing sheriffs, Whelan said.
The two also served on legislative committees for the association, educating legislators on law enforcement issues and the possible impacts of their bills.
“We testified fairly regularly on a lot of bills that impacted law enforcement on a statewide basis. A lot of times bills would be introduced … which sometimes led to longer jail terms, but those longer jail terms impacted our ability to put people in jail because the longer that person is in jail, the more space is taken up,” Whelan said.
At one meeting, Whelan recalled, Didion was particularly fired up.
“He said something like, ‘We need to shine the light on these rats in the basement as they’re scurrying around.’ It was all I could do to keep my composure. … He really was passionate about it.”
Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown knew Didion through his work in the Legislature and with WASPC.
“He was a man with a huge heart, but as a sheriff, a guy that cared about his community and the safety of the people in it,” he said. “He’s the kind of man that you’d want to follow if you had to go into battle. It didn’t matter if the battle was out on the street or in the capitol in Olympia.”
“John did a lot for our community and for the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office where he served as sheriff for 12 years. He will be missed by many,” Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson wrote in a press release.
He also commended Didion’s support of the Naselle Youth Camp for at-risk youth.
“He worked to keep that facility open when they faced state budget challenges,” Johnson wrote.
Didion is survived by his wife, Anne Marie, two sons and a daughter.
“They had a chance to say goodbye to him. It was really tough. He was a physically imposing man, and he was in great shape. He had lost about 40 or 50 pounds and he was in the best shape I had seen him in in a long time,” Whelan said. “He had a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt. When you shook hands with him, it was like a child’s hand in an adult’s hand.”
His good health made his sudden death all the more shocking only three years into his retirement.
“We all work toward retirement in the hope that when we do retire, we’ll have lots of time to spend with our family and play a little bit. I know he really enjoyed spending time with his family, especially his grandkids. He talked about them all the time,” Whelan said.
He said he would remember Didion’s fierce loyalty to his friends and his devotion to public service.
“I’m going to miss him a lot. He was a close friend,” Whelan said.
“He really was bigger than life,” Scott said. “He really did a lot of great things for Pacific County.”
Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or email@example.com and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.