Selfish Altruism

Our neighbor Ken Fischer has told stories arising from his service in the Lakewood Police Department, involving lots of interesting characters around Lakewood. Today he tells us the connection between his work with the LPD and his avocation as a woodcutter. Part 1 of 2 parts. 

By Ken Fischer

It has pretty consistently been a family function among my people that you try to be God fearing, work hard, make something of your life and help others when you can. Both my parents demonstrated this tradition with a variety of acts of kindness.

My dad worked quite hard as a brick and stone mason for over 60 years. My mother was consistently reaching out to people in need and arranging help via her multitude of contacts.

I could never get away with anything because she knew most everybody, their kin and offspring. I recall working with “Pop” at the Visitation Convent, repairing some failed brick walls.

Sister Katherine wanted to pay him. Pop responded in his deep, steady voice: “We’ll write the bill in the sand and let the wind settle it.”

I was preceded in this endeavor by my brother and three sisters, all of whom followed our folks in helping others without expectation of praise or reward. I had sound role models. Our Depression-era folks were proud of us all and made substantial sacrifices to allow each of us to achieve post college education. But formal education was secondary to being a righteous person. This axiom from a man who finished fourth grade and a woman who attended a nuns’ boarding school but was deemed not suitable for college. The choices in that time were wife, practical nurse or nun. Mom and her sister chose two out of the three options.

Looking back, I was quite honored to be selected for my police department’s hall of fame. One of the tenets of this honor related to public service outside the normal role of a police sergeant. In my case, these were principles learned from my dad, mom, and aunt. The way these principles took shape involved woodcutting: during my later years at LPD, I became somewhat functional with a chainsaw.

Ken Fischer with chainsaw, standing by a large tree stumpWhile working the street, we would encounter folks, mostly elderly, who had been hit by a wind storm or found that they had a dead tree or two. As I got better in the lumberjack and tree-falling skill, I was sought after to help both needy and well-fixed friends and associates.

Most cops and firemen have side jobs to supplement a pretty basic salary. Often schedules would allow 4 days off in a row with firemen often stringing a week off at a time.

This side work paid a lot of bills, helped put a son through college, paid off two homes and a beautiful chunk of land in the mountains. One must be grateful for the benefit of sound assets.

One should give something back to those deserving as well.

My contact was a fine young man who was a senior resource technician at the city. This city has always had an appreciation for seniors and I was impressed by the number of free or low-cost programs offered. My young technician saw his work as more than a job as do most city employees. From day one in 1973, I was impressed by the dedication of city workers as well as the altruistic actions of Lakewood citizens. That’s one reason why people like to live here.

Normally cops are fairly skeptical. It comes from dealing with people who lie, cheat, steal and harm others. Sensitivity to phonies generally comes early and street experience allows cops to “read” people pretty effectively. When situations requiring assistance arose, I would trust my technician to separate legitimate requests from the phonies. We were pretty successful in getting help to righteous folks. One clue would be the request or inquiry would come from a third party as the primary person in need wouldn’t ask for help.

Several memorable operations stick with me. I remember this one with particular clarity.

Two elderly sisters were neighbors of a fellow sergeant. They had contracted a door to door tree man to remove a fair sized dead tree from their humble residence. He required a 50% deposit of five hundred dollars which was over twice that of a fair price. He cut two medium branches, leaving his rope secured from the tree top. He never returned, had no business address and calls went unanswered. My friend and co-worker asked if I could take a look.

One Saturday I was able to drop the tree and as I was sectioning it up, most neighbors from the cul-de-sac joined in hauling brush and loading logs. The sisters were beyond grateful. Both disabled, one in a wheelchair. No charge. Lots of tears. They provided drinks to the workers.

Although I asked them not to, they forwarded a nice letter to the department.

For a long time I kept the name of the “tree man” in my book of scoundrels. Luckily for him, we never met. His rope was poor quality. Maybe he made Darwin’s list of those who improve the gene pool by passing on. I can’t count that dark thought as a reward for helping the elderly sisters, but I admit it’s a temptation. The way the neighbors pitched in though, and the smiles of everyone involved, gave me plenty of satisfaction. The generous rewards of altruism sometimes make it seem selfish indeed.

The rest of the story will be told next week: Selfish Altruism – Part 2

Ken Fischer holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Iowa and was involved in organizing Iowa’s first Law Enforcement Training Academy. He was on the SWAT Team in the Lakewood Police Department, and retired as a Senior Sergeant. A longtime resident of Southern Gables, he is an experienced woodsman and now runs a firewood business. 

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