Exploring the Deep Eventually Led to Top Law Enforcement Spot

By Nancy Zoellner-Hogland

While taking a course to become a certified scuba diver, Gary Schaaf never considered that the training would launch him into a whole new career, but that’s exactly what happened.

“I was in college at the time and learned that a scuba training facility in Cape Girardeau was offering a class. I had always been interested in scuba diving and was looking for something to do so I signed up,” he said, adding that he not only learned a lot, he discovered that he greatly enjoyed his new hobby.

From that point on, much of his free time was spent exploring the murky waters of local lakes, the Muddy Mississippi and the clear waters off the Florida coast.

Then one day, he was asked by Franklin “Dutch” Schmidt, the Perry County sheriff at the time, to put his new-found skill to work recovering the body of someone who had drowned in a local swimming hole. The young diver was successful, Sheriff Schmidt was impressed and the next time there was an opening in the sheriff’s office, Schaaf was asked to join the team.

“He thought it would be handy to have someone on staff that could dive so he called, I accepted and that was that,” he said. “That was in 1982, when just 120 hours of basic law enforcement training was needed and you had a year to complete it. They gave me a badge and the car keys and turned me loose! I worked for four months before I actually went to the academy.”

In addition to working the road, his duties included taking care of inmates, doing everything but the cooking. Sheriff Schaaf laughed as he remembered the facility.

“We operated out of an old house – built in 1904, I think – that had been converted for use by the sheriff. It originally had a few cells upstairs but because there was no fire escape, the sheriff closed the upper level off and kept up to five or six inmates confined in one large room on the main floor. It wasn’t fancy but it worked,” he quipped. “I was 25, I enjoyed – and still enjoy – helping people so I was very happy that I found something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

He stayed with the Perry County Sheriff’s Office until 1986, when he ran for the position of city marshal for Perryville and won. He served as the town’s chief of police until 1992, when he successfully ran for the office of sheriff. He was sworn in January 1, 1993 and has served since – occasionally even putting his diving skills to work recovering stolen merchandise and a stolen vehicle.

And although he’s had opposition in some of his races, the sheriff said he feels he’s always maintained the support of his community. That was made apparent in 2010, when voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax for law enforcement.

“One of the most difficult challenges I faced was keeping quality staff and operating on a steadily shrinking budget after the economy took a downturn. We eventually had to lay a few people off, which made it harder to keep our community safe. However, the people passed the tax and that helped immensely. We were able to bring the salaries up, which helped us keep employees, and we were able to hire back some of those we had let go,” he said.

The tax has also allowed the county to purchase new patrol cars and upgrade equipment.

“When I took office, there wasn’t a computer in the place. Everything was done on typewriters. Today, we have technology that helps us keep pace with the rest of the law enforcement agencies and has made it possible for us to do our jobs better and more efficiently,” he said.

Married with three grown children and a grandchild, Sheriff Schaaf said he’s also always had the support of his family.

“I think the kids somewhat enjoyed the notoriety they got because of who I was. I don’t know if it was good or if it was bad – everybody just knew who they were – but I don’t think they ever resented it. I don’t think I was stricter than other parents, but I would point out things that were going on and say that I hoped I never caught them doing any of them! A word to the wise, so to speak,” he laughed.

His wife, Tamara, is now retired, but working as a registered nurse in the local hospital over the years, in addition to understanding the demands of the job, she was very much aware of its dangers and was always concerned for her husband’s safety.

Sheriff Schaaf said retirement is not something he’s considering yet.

“I’m still having fun and feel that I’m still making a difference so for now, this is where I plan to stay.”