'Billy Humble': Unusual Success in Cops' Macho World

Times Staff Writer

They called him "Billy Humble" and it was not always intended as a term of endearment.

Other San Diego police officers hit the streets with badge-heavy swaggers, but Billy Humble worked instead on being respectful and non-threatening to just about everybody. He said "please" a lot. He said "thank you" a lot. He actually listened to what citizens had to say and, sometimes, much to their astonishment, he agreed with them.

Those who didn't like his style harrumphed. A cop has to be tough, they insisted. A cop can't take anything off anybody.

Some laughed at Billy Humble.

They're not laughing now.

At 49, San Diego's Billy Humble, better known today as Police Chief Bill Kolender, may well be at his professional peak.

Convincingly self-effacing, with a Solomon-like reputation for integrity and empathy, there is perhaps no more popular public figure in San Diego today. Even his officers on the beat, where Kolender spent relatively little time before ascending to management, appear to genuinely like him.

With nine years at the helm of San Diego's 1,300-member Police Department, he has been a top cop longer than any other current U.S. big city chief.

There has been talk that Kolender could easily win election as mayor, were Roger Hedgecock to succumb to the legal woes that dog him. A liberal Republican, Kolender professes no interest in the mayor's job. "I make an awful lot more money than the mayor," he says, smiling.

And now there comes a rumor, however substantive, that Kolender is in line to lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation should FBI Director William Webster choose to resign. Kolender, who once turned down an offer by President Reagan to head Immigration and Naturalization Service, has said he would accept the FBI position if offered.

Billy Humble as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation? J. Edgar Hoover might roll over in his grave.

William Barnett Kolender doesn't fit the J. Edgar mold.

Physically imposing at 6-foot-3 and pushing 200 pounds, Kolender's mannerisms are the antithesis of intimidation. His quick smile is that of a shy, little boy. His green eyes, although unwavering, have a sadness about them. He speaks not with the gravelly rasp of a Dirty Harry, but with a slight lisp.

He didn't make his mark prowling dark alleys in a patrol car, investigating homicides or going undercover to catch dope dealers. He only pulled his gun a few times and never had to fire it. His career coups were scored primarily as a "community relations" officer, mollifying militants during the turbulent 1960s, while acting as the Police Department's liaison with City Hall.

He is described as compassionate, trusting, quick-witted, frequently profane ("Jesus, don't write that down."), and often humorous. Kolender particularly enjoys making gentle sport of himself and his religion, Judaism. "We may not solve crime, but we're going to make a profit," he jokingly promised then-City Manager Hugh McKinley when he was sworn in as police chief in 1976.

Yet he also admits to being thin-skinned when it comes to personal criticism or criticism directed at his department that he regards as unwarranted. For example, when The Times last year reported that an expert in hostage rescue methods had critiqued the Police Department's SWAT team before the San Ysidro massacre and found substantial deficiencies, Kolender became angered. Departmental sources said that after the story appeared, Kolender ordered an investigation of the expert.

"I may have," Kolender says. "I don't remember."

Kolender lives on a hilltop in Del Cerro with "my best friend"--his third wife, Lois, the tall, soft-spoken widow of San Diego Charger linebacker Emil Karas, who died of cancer in 1974.

There is a pool in their backyard and a few of Kolender's many community service awards on the shelves of their family room. Kolender eagerly points out one trophy, the Public Relations Society of America's Diogenes Award, which Kolender received in 1978 for "accessibility, responsiveness, willingness to admit wrong and refusal to lie . . ."

"This means more to me than any of the others," he says. He is asked if his obvious popularity in the community can be attributed to his openness.

"It sounds so egoey for me to talk about something like that," Kolender moans. "Why am I popular? Am I? What can I say? I'd like to think so. It's important for me to be liked, but not to the detriment of my job, I can tell you that . . . I'm non-threatening and I guess that's just me, but I'm effective in my job. And I can be tough when I have to, oh you betcha."

Still, in an aloof, macho profession where might frequently makes right, the high-profile Kolender is an anomaly, a $63,000-a-year administrator who has made his candid, non-macho image perhaps his greatest strength. While other, more rigid police chiefs cast threatening shadows over their respective cities, Kolender has become the living embodiment that one can catch more with honey than with vinegar.

"His reputation for years was 'Billy Humble,' " says Don Reierson, a former San Diego deputy police chief and now president of Westec Security Inc. "His insecurity is truly one of his strengths. In some remarkable way, Bill makes you feel sorry for him; he makes you want to help him because he's asking for help rather than demanding it. I envied him his ability not to antagonize people. It's a gift."

Ed Stevens, a retired San Diego police homicide lieutenant, is equally admiring of Kolender's demeanor.

"He'll stand up nose to nose with you if you want to fight, but before it gets to that, he's the kind of guy who'll make people get along with each other," says Stevens, now head of security for Atlas Hotels and an occasional tennis partner of Kolender. "He's into friendship a lot and maybe that's his biggest problem, if he has one. This is a man who has a hard time accepting the fact that not everyone's going to like him."

This is also a man who can't go ocean fishing with his two sons because he gets seasick easily, a man who says he doesn't take his job home with him at night, reads few books and enjoys watching television's "A Team" when he gets the chance.

This is a man who, between his second and third marriages, relished cooking breakfast for his bachelor friends on Saturday mornings and would scold them for talking as their pancakes grew cold.

This is a man who truly enjoys going grocery shopping with his wife, a man who regularly visits Price Club to pick up a few groceries and ends up buying cases of unneeded stuff simply because he can't resist a bargain. "He's Charlie Consumer, an ad agency's dream," muses Ron Reina, sports director at KSDO radio and one of Kolender's closest friends. "That's his weakness. If he needs mayonnaise for a sandwich, he'll go out and buy a gallon jar."

But his subordinates say Kolender's management of the Police Department is hardly impulsive.

Kolender's performance and that of his department, which has never suffered a major scandal under him, routinely satisfy City Hall. He listens closely to the wishes of the City Council and city manager--something that his predecessors didn't do particularly well. He scores points by keeping his bosses regularly informed of his battle against crime, comforting them frequently with the observation, "San Diego is still the safest big city in America."

"I guess what he has done is sold everyone in San Diego on the Police Department," says Councilman Ed Struiksma, himself a former San Diego police officer. "He's somewhat demilitarized the department and made it more personable, more in touch with the people, but has nevertheless demanded and expected a high degree of proficiency and expediency from his officers."

The community at large appears equally pleased with its Police Department. Even Kolender's critics--and there are a few--have to scratch around before coming up with what they regard as valid complaints.

"It's hard to criticize him because he develops personal relationships with people, and he's not hard-nosed about things when you want to discuss issues," said local black activist Vernon Sukumu. "He's still a policeman; I think he still has their 'them against us' attitude and will always side with his officers. But by establishing personal relationships, he tends to minimize any real criticism from the outside."

Some police chiefs sit inside their offices, delegating little responsibility and venturing into the public eye only when their officers have done good or bad. Not Bill Kolender. Acquaintances say he carefully dictates what course his department will follow on specific issues. Then he lets his assistant and deputy chiefs handle the tending of the administrative tiller. Kolender spends much of his time in a public relations function, fulfilling what can only be regarded as the role of a local celebrity.

His daily schedule often includes lunch-time and evening speaking engagements. He is a regular at get-togethers in the minority neighborhoods of Southeast San Diego; he's a regular at society functions in La Jolla. He counts among his friends Charger's head coach Don Coryell; San Diego Padres' owner Joan Kroc; Ballard Smith, president of the baseball team, and newly confirmed U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese.

Where would San Diego's newspaper gossip columnists be without Kolender?

Item: "It was (Joan Kroc's) first at-home party in five years. Dom DeLuise and Sid Ceasar helped entertain . . . Cleveland Amory and Norman Cousins represented the literati. Other guests were former President Gerald Ford, Lois and Bill Kolender . . . They gathered around Mrs. Kroc at the organ and sang Christmas carols."

Item: "Police Chief Bill Kolender will be back on the traffic beat Friday morning. But he won't be issuing any citations. Kolender will ride along on Steve Springer's Airwatch helicopter ... and issue traffic alerts for listeners to KFMB, KCBQ and KSDO radio."

Item: "Sideshow at SD Jack Murphy Stadium during Saturday's SDPD-Celebrity Softball Game to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation: a home-run hitting contest between Police Chief Bill Kolender and SDSU criminology professor Tom Gitchoff."

Kolender says he enjoys the limelight but doesn't seek it.

"I don't consciously think about my image," he says. "I just try to be me."

That aside, he does not like his photograph taken while he's inhaling one of the 40 or so low-tar cigarettes he smokes each day. Nor does he like pictures taken of himself with his pet cockateel, "Bird Reynolds," whose cage sits in a corner of Kolender's dining room.

"C'mon, c'mon. I'd look weird," Kolender says with a nervous smile when asked to pose with the bird.

He poses before a bathroom mirror each morning with a blow dryer and a brush, styling his shock of smooth, black hair into a pompadour that would make a television game show host proud. Never is a strand out of place.

He doesn't like to wear his chief's dress uniform with its star-studded epaulets because, he's told acquaintances, it makes him look like "a Mexican general." He is partial to well-tailored dark suits and crisp dress shirts, which he will sometimes change two or three times a day, according to one friend.

Kolender, however, has not always enjoyed such luxuries.

He was born in Depression-plagued Chicago on May 23, 1935, the first child of an asthmatic jeweler named David Kolender and his wife, Esther. Six years later, a sister, Marlene, was born, followed three years after that by another sister, Iris.

The family moved to San Diego when Bill was 11. David Kolender left Chicago to escape the rag weed pollen that sometimes caused him violent respiratory attacks.

He settled his family in Kensington, then a San Diego suburb, and operated a jewelry store at the foot of Broadway, Admiral Jewelers, "Where every customer is a friend." David Kolender died three years ago of Alzheimer's Disease. Kolender's mother still lives in San Diego, but the family's jewelry shop is now a tattoo parlor.

Raised in an Orthodox Jewish environment, Bill Kolender went to Hebrew classes and was bar mitzvahed at 13. He delivered newspapers and, at 15, began pumping gas at a local service station. He enrolled at Hoover High School, majoring in math and industrial arts.

Kolender was no scholar. With money saved from his gas station job, he bought a '36 Ford. His car, dances in the school cafeteria and the music of singer Nat King Cole tended to dominate his concentration.

He flunked a civics class and had to attend summer school to make up for his failed grade. Then he lost his driver's license at 17 for speeding and running red lights. His parents lamented whether he would ever make something of himself.

He received his diploma in 1953, an undistinguished member of his high school class. "His smile and tan are his outstanding features," was the best his senior yearbook could muster in describing Kolender for posterity.

Shortly after graduation, Kolender received his first taste of the law. It happened on a balmy July 4, 1953, when he and some friends went joy riding. Somebody threw a firecracker. A police officer ordered the car stopped and an opened bottle of booze was found underneath a seat. Kolender went to jail.

The authorities threw him in the drunk tank. The next day, his father paid $125 and bailed him out. The case eventually was dismissed for lack of evidence after the prosecution was unable to produce the incriminating liquor bottle.

"I was guilty," Kolender concedes. "I was lucky, too."

He joined the Navy and soon found himself in trouble once again. While in boot camp in San Diego, he sneaked a cigarette in the barracks. He was caught, given a summary court-martial and sentenced to 30 days' confinement in the barracks. But the sentence, Kolender says, was also his salvation.

For perhaps the first time in his young life, he actually studied. He graduated among the top 10 in his class of radio operators, served aboard an amphibious warship prowling the West Coast and was honorably discharged two years later--without a clue about what to do with his life.

He enrolled at what is now San Diego City College while taking a job as a clerk at a downtown surplus store. He also married his first wife, Marilyn Burkun, the diminutive, blue-eyed daughter of a Kensington movie house operator. Bill and Marilyn would have two sons and a daughter before separating 16 years later. Their oldest child, Michael, 28, works today for Dixieline Lumber Home Centers; Randie, 24, is a college student and drug store clerk, and Dennis, 21, is an apprentice plumber and lives with Kolender.

While working at the surplus store in 1956, Kolender happened to speak with a friend who had recently joined the San Diego Police Department. The friend was walking his beat and Kolender decided to tag along. The authoritative air with which his friend carried himself impressed Kolender.

He joined the Police Department in July of that year. There were no other Jews on the force--a fact not lost on Kolender's father.

"My dad was very upset; he said our people didn't become cops; that I should go to school and become a doctor or something worthwhile," says Kolender. "It became a family joke later, because he didn't mind it after I made chief."

Kolender didn't do particularly well in the police academy, and he didn't set the world on fire afterward.

"I'd say he was a little above average," said Ed Stevens, who was a sergeant while Kolender was a patrolman. "The thing that struck me about him, though, was that he was always pleasant and good-humored, which is sometimes tough if you're a cop."

But if Bill Kolender had a distinct talent, present and former officers say, it was taking and passing promotional tests.

In 1962, at age 26, he became what was then the youngest sergeant in the history of the force. He worked a couple of years as a supervisor in the Police Department's border sub-station before transferring to community relations, where he became the department's youngest lieutenant. He would go on to become the department's youngest captain, inspector and commander.

Although he directed other sections of the department as he continued his upward climb, he was invariably called upon to act as an intermediary between the police, racial groups and student anti-war demonstrators. Community relations and even-tempered Bill Kolender became synonymous. He also became the man who regularly reported to City Hall on behalf of the Police Department.

"He was at the right hand of the politicians and became the source of intervention," says former Deputy Chief Reierson. "In policing back then, 'politician' meant bad. Bill was our departmental politician and a lot of people didn't respect him for it. There was a lot of resentment directed toward him, but Bill was needed. He served an extremely valuable role with the minority groups at a critical time in San Diego's history."

While a member of a county commission studying the problems between the police and minorities, Kolender met his second wife, also named Marilyn, who was writing a report about the commission for a college class. They were married in 1973 and divorced six years later. Kolender makes reference to her today as "M-2." His first wife is "M-1."

In 1974, a hard-line street cop named Raymond L. Hoobler was picked to replace retiring Police Chief O.J. Roed. Tradition dictated that the new top cop could pick his number two man, the deputy chief. But this time, City Manager Kimball Moore advised Hoobler that he had no choice: Kolender would be his deputy.

"Some of the council members felt they wanted a real liberal guy as number two man if we were going to have a real conservative guy as chief," said former Councilman Floyd L. Morrow. "Kolender had done some--I don't want to say lobbying--but there were council members who supported him specifically."

Hoobler was none too pleased with having Kolender at his side.

"He was not my selection," Hoobler says today. "I felt that there were several assistant chiefs with greater experience who would have served my administration more effectively."

In September, 1975, Hoobler resigned after he was accused of having lied to the City Council in an investigation involving the destruction of a police officer's personnel file. Kolender became chief.

To this day, there is obvious bad blood between the two men. Kolender will not discuss Hoobler for the record; Hoobler chooses his words carefully when asked about Kolender.

"He and I differ philosophically," says Hoobler, a vice president with Atlas Hotels. "I have since established a relationship with Chief Kolender, but infrequently interface with him because of the dramatic variances in our approaches to law enforcement."

As Kolender took control of the department, those dramatic, progressive variances steadily became apparent to the officers on the force.

No longer were officers judged solely on how many arrests they made or number of traffic tickets issued. He encouraged his officers to get out of the patrol cars and meet the people on their beats; he let them wear their hair a little longer to be more in style; he made a point to be accessible to the average cop with a beef or problem.

Accordingly, the vast majority of officers came to revere him as the department's morale and image improved.

"When Kolender replaced Hoobler, it was like working for Attila the Hun one day and Abraham Lincoln the next," says Stevens.

Kolender's popularity in the community continued to grow as well. By May, 1981, it had spread to Washington, where the Reagan Administration asked him to direct the Immigration and Naturalization Service. After much wringing of hands, Kolender turned down the job, saying he was too attached to San Diego.

He toyed with the idea of running for mayor in 1982. He even allowed a fund-raising committee to be formed and had "Kolender for Mayor" bumper stickers printed. Then he quietly shelved any thoughts of a campaign.

"He was intimidated by the thought of having to ask people for campaign contributions at one wine and cheese party after another," says Kolender's close friend, Philip del Campo, an administrator with the San Diego Community College District. "He's too sensitive to run for elected office. He doesn't understand why 50% of the people would automatically hate him just because he's a candidate."

What, then, would happen were Kolender tapped to head the FBI? Could he withstand the glaring, impersonal scrutiny of a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing? Could he stand to part ways with the city he once said he couldn't leave, a city where he is a veritable hero?

His answer is appropriately humble.

"I'd take the job," Kolender says, and then he pauses. "That is, if it was offered."

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