Growing up in Long Island, N.Y., Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton used to listen to his grandfather?s stories about being a police officer in New York. And the tales always ended with the same admonition ? don?t be a police officer in New York.
?I had to come to Kansas,? Walton joked. ?There must have been some of the police DNA that got into my bloodstream.?
He had a bit of an adventurer?s bug in him, too. So after graduating from Oceanside High School in New York in 1969, Walton, then 18, headed to Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1973.
He was as green as they come when he arrived in Kansas.
?All we knew about Kansas was what we saw on ?Gunsmoke,? he said, referring to the long-running TV western drama series that aired from 1955 to 1975. ?We expected Indians and sidewalks made of wood. We?d never seen horses or cows or chickens.? Back there it?s city, city, city, concrete and no break. It was 10 miles from Kennedy Airport to the house, and it took an hour to get there.?
His expectations were pleasantly dashed, however.
?I was amazed. It was nicer than what we had in New York. I got acclimated quickly. It was big and clean ? nice sidewalks ? and I never left,? Walton said.
Walton, a religion major in college, considered becoming a church pastor. But after giving a sermon as part of a class, he started to have second thoughts.
?I had a thick accent and was speaking fast because I was nervous,? Walton recalled. ?I looked at the congregation, who were having a hard time figuring out what I was saying, and then wondered if it was something I should do.?
From there he worked a variety of jobs, including construction, running a contractor?s business and working with a community action group as director of a program to help lower-income people fix their homes.
All the while, though, police work kept tugging at him. In 1988, just shy of 70 years after his grandfather, Joseph Woytisek, became a police officer in 1919, Walton finally followed his grandfather?s footsteps into law enforcement.
After graduating from the Kansas law Enforcement Training Center, he joined the Newton Police Department in 1988. He was promoted to field training officer in 1992 and to detective in 1994. The following year, Walton was a member of the Emergency Response Team (ERT) as a hostage negotiator.
In 2000, he founded and was the director of the Heart to Heart Child Advocacy Center. Two years later, he was promoted to sergeant in charge of investigations. He moved up to lieutenant of investigations and director of the Harvey County Drug Task Force in 2006. Then in 2008, Walton won the election for sheriff of Harvey County and was re-elected in 2012.
As sheriff, he starts each day with coffee with his staff, the highway patrol and the Newton Police Department.
?I need to know what?s going on, and to laugh a little bit, because after that, you never know what will happen,? Walton said. As the day unfolds, he could be called out to a vehicle accident, a hostage situation or a shooting.
Or to investigate reports of aliens, of which he?s come to be looked on as the resident expert by his co-workers. Somehow, during the years, the reports of aliens always seem to have found him, he said, laughing.
One time he was called to a street scene of an alien?s narrow escape, as luck would have it. Another time he went to a house that had its basement flooded with water from a garden hose. The woman who placed the call said she had spotted an alien and ran the hose into the basement to ward the being off.
Aliens, she told Walton, don?t like water. Her protective measure clearly worked. That?s why there wasn?t one on the premises when Walton arrived, she explained.
His experiences quickly turned into fodder for jokes and pranks by his peers and staff. Figurines and action figures of aliens, along with a life-size cardboard cutout of one, stand guard in his office, all gifts from friends and office mates.
But there?s also a serious side to the job.
?Kurt Ford was a life-changing experience. Bullets were flying by my face,? Walton said of the 2005 shootout that killed Harvey County Deputy Sheriff Kurt Ford. Like Walton, Ford had begun his law enforcement career in Harvey County in 1988.
The incident began with a domestic disturbance that turned into a hostage standoff situation. When the suspect began attacking the hostage, Ford and the ERT moved in. Ford was fatally shot in the head.
Afterward, coming to grips with the tragic shooting, Walton was faced with a decision.
?I could quit, or go on and be better,? he said. ?I chose the latter.
?The hardest part is for the wives,? he continued. ?You have to think about them. When you go (to work), you say, ?See you later.? But will you see them later? Will you come home? I didn?t realize what my wife goes through when I?m late coming home.?
Walton is married and has one son, Joseph. His wife, Karen, owns Karen?s Kitchen in Newton.
?I worry about my officers. When they go out and I hear there is a gun, I worry, he added. Working in law enforcement, ?you see a lot of death ? suicides, car wrecks,? he said. And that can weigh heavy on officers? minds. Following emotionally taxing events, officers, especially young detectives, need to talk, Walton said, whether it?s to their wives, the staff chaplain or himself.
?Talk to me, tell me how you?re feeling. Talk to the chaplain. You don?t have to be macho. Go and talk. This is what?s going to get you through your career,? Walton said.
Community support also helps bolster officers, who often don?t realize how much support they have in the community, or the effect they have on the public they serve, he said.
?There will be things that officers do that they have no idea of the impact they have in people?s lives. The things they do will influence a lot of lives,? he said.
Photos and story by Fred Solis