The probation officer5/22/2013
Sue Bullard-Fisher died the other day. Most of you don’t know her. She was a probation officer in Polk County for 40 years, but, really, she should have been a probation officer in the first half of the last century. She was from a different time with a different ethic.
I first met Sue years ago in the chaos of room 204 at the Polk County Courthouse — a wild scene in those days at best. All the folks charged with felonies showed up for arraignment in the early morning — many with an entourage of lawyers, girlfriends and family members. Pleas of “not-guilty” were entered. Formal appearances were made. The judge set bond and appointed counsel. Children cried in the back of the room as lawyers spoke in hushed tones to their clients. Legal documents flew as we’d try to move people out of the room to get to the other scheduled matters for the day. And the judge would remain on the bench, calling out names and handling case after case.
Sue sat quietly in the front row. As a probation officer, she was there because something went wrong. Probation officers are the folks on the front line. Punishment is meted out by the judge, but it was Sue’s job to make sure her clients stayed on the straight and narrow. Sitting in room 204 meant that someone strayed off the path. They didn’t show up for work, or they failed to go to substance abuse treatment or maybe they dropped a dirty urine sample once too often. It could be many things. But one of her clients did something wrong, and now we had to figure out what to do next.
Sue was not tall, but she was solid, with a no-nonsense look. I did not know her that first day. As the prosecutor, I rattled off to her, in my busy and self-important manner, what exactly was going to happen to her client for whatever misdeed he did. I told her that I had already written up the proposed order to present to the judge and that she just needed to stand when I gave the sign. Did she understand?
In a raspy voice that still echoes in my ears, she told me that wasn’t what her client needed. (What? Was she talking back to me?) And then she began to school me on what was best for her client and for the public. I sat down. She was tough, she was passionate, and she knew what the right thing to do was. I was in awe. I had run into June Cleaver crossed with Teddy Roosevelt, a loving mother who carried a big stick. It became imminently clear that every client was important to her, and she was more than willing to wrestle me to the ground for what she believed was right. Before we were done, I wanted her as my probation officer.
I was invited to her home in the “southeast bottoms” of Des Moines on a hot summer day more than a few years ago. Three large dogs greeted my arrival. Perhaps “large” does not accurately describe these small ponies that sniffed and pranced around me. Sue waded among them with cheery calm as I unsuccessfully tried to find somewhere high to climb for safety. I came to find out her home was essentially a safe home for dogs where humans were allowed to board. And, of course, I eventually left her home with my own soon-to-be 130-pound puppy.
But her home was also a safe home for her family and friends. On one of my few visits, Marcia, Sue’s wife, was well enough to see me. I was brought into a dimmed front room, where a bed had been arranged, and Marcia was carefully tucked beneath the covers. Sue gently stroked Marcia’s forehead as Marcia gamely engaged me in conversation. Sue eventually shooed me from the room, and I overheard Sue’s gravelly voice soothing Marcia to sleep.
After Marcia’s death, Sue found a new life and a new wife. That was a wonderful gift. But the image remains of this tough woman, this hardened probation officer, gently stroking the forehead of her sick wife. And this is how I will always remember her.
May she rest in peace. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.