Many years ago, when a Washington State Patrol recruiting board asked Gus Nilsson why he wanted to be a trooper, his answer was simple. “Because I want to save lives,” he said.
For almost 42 years, Nilsson did just that, patrolling the roadways of Gray’s Harbor County, responding to emergencies and using a combination of education and enforcement to change the way people drive. Over the years, his focus to save lives remained unchanged, but the reason why he stayed on the job became more nuanced, “I loved the job and the people.”
On Monday, after 41 years and 11 months of service, Nilsson, 64, officially retired from the force. When he retired, he had more years on the Washington State Patrol than any other trooper. He said walking away from the troopers was difficult, “It’s tough, because you’re a family.”
Nilsson was born in Aberdeen and graduated from Moclips High School. He attended Grays Harbor and Shoreline colleges. In 1968, he joined the Army. He spent two-and a-half years as a military police officer. After he was released from active duty, he applied to the Washington State Patrol. He was commissioned on May 19, 1972, after graduation from the WSP Training Academy. He was initially assigned to the Bellevue detachment. In 1974 he transfered to the Harbor.
During his 41 years of service, he said the biggest change he saw was with the equipment he used, radar speed detectors, for example. The models used by the State Patrol in the 70s consisted of a radar transmitter mounted on a tripod, with a battery pack next to it. Nilsson said he would spot a driver speeding, go after them, write a ticket and then go back to where the radar detector was, “hoping the battery was where it was.”
Now the radar is vehicle mounted, and incredibly sophisticated with multiple tracking modes.
Nilsson said there is also, unfortunately, less respect toward law enforcement officials, largely in part because of the influence of the entertainment media. “I don’t think policemen get the same respect they used to.”
Trooper Ben Blankenship, who has worked with Nilsson for more than 25 years, said the trooper is “the last of the old breed.”
“The job is a little different know, he’s more of a people’s person than people are now,” he said.
Nilsson said he especially loved any efforts to educate drivers to be safer. “If I could stop someone and talk to them and educate them, then I’ve done my job,” he said, adding that tickets were one of his least favorite ways of influencing behavior, namely because the cost of tickets has gone up tenfold “I hated to give tickets.”
He also had conflicted feelings about responding to accidents. On one hand, emergency medical workers, troopers and police save countless lives responding to traffic accidents. But while he saw many people rushed away to a hospital, he saw many who died on scene.
The images of many of the dead have never left him. The worst accident Nilsson saw was when a logging truck hit a vehicle full of children. At least four children died.
Nilsson said because that of all the accidents, he values life very deeply and sees each day is a gift. Maybe this is why Nilsson said he focuses his life on people. While working as a trooper, he also worked as a logger. He didn’t necessarily do it for the money, he said he loved the people and being outdoors with the smell of wet bark, freshly-cut trees and the sounds of the forest carried by the wind.
In Feb. 1984, Nilsson was transferred to the criminal investigations unit for auto thefts. He spend two years in the unit, but after two years of long commutes to work not to mention because he missed patrol work, Nilsson decided to return to the road.
“They wanted me to move to Olympia, but I wanted to stay in Grays Harbor,” he said.
He returned to the Hoquiam division where he remained the rest of his carreer. In all, Nilsson spent more that 37 years patroling the highways of Grays Harbor County.
Because of his long-term connection in the community, Nilsson has in his own way, become a well known and much respected face in the community. Much like country doctors who deliver generations of families Nilsson has presided over generations of drivers and has been present at some of the most trying events of people’s lives.
Long-time colleague Sheriff Rick Scott, said the thing that always characterized Nilsson was his deep sense of respect for those he worked with and those on the road. He was a seasoned, dependable officer.
“When you look back on a career like his, I don’t think you can count the number of lives he saved or impacted,” Scott said. “He always maintained his respect for people. He always treated people fairly.” Scott said the county is losing a great asset and experience, “He’s a walking piece of law enforcement history.”
Blankenship said Nilsson “doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. That’s just the kind of person he is. I miss him being out there. The job’s not the same.”
For Nilsson, Monday was bittersweet. He considers himself very lucky for being able to pursue his childhood dream and for having a job he loved so much for so long. But all journeys come to an end. He handed in most of his equipment about a week and a half prior and knew his days on patrol were over. And as he handed over his gear, he said he thought to himself, “I made it.”