John W. Carpenter: 1929-2017

One of Sheriff John Carpenter’s favorite times in office was when Santa Barbara was President Reagan’s Western White House.
Courtesy Photo

Born in 1929, my dad, John Carpenter, grew up with his family of five in a one-bedroom home, waiting in lines for free government cheese. His father had a bad heart and died early. Never good in school, he liked to say he was invited to leave early. One night, my dad was caught letting the air out of the tires of a police car. Instead of chastising him, the officer explained the possible consequences of his actions and that he might not have been able to get to people in need without a working vehicle. He also took the time to explain why he enjoyed his job, from answering calls for help to typing up reports on an old manual typewriter he carried in his car. John never forgot the officer’s warning or encouragement. After serving as a paratrooper in Japan, he returned home to Hermosa Beach and became a police officer.

Hired by his hometown police department, he found his niche. He enjoyed the regimentation combined with the independence the job provided. Between calls, he loved investigating whatever caught his eye. He was a fighter and loved street work but also quickly grasped the political nature of the job. During this time, he became a single father to his four young kids. He was chosen to attend the FBI National Academy, where he met J. Edgar Hoover. About six years later, he met the love of his life, Linda, and they were married for 52 years. After rising to the rank of lieutenant, he began applying for various chief of police positions. He was turned down many times. He always said that just made him better at the next interview.

John worked his career like an avid chess player, loving the political ins and outs of law enforcement life. He was curious and a hard worker and always advised to have “a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C.” This wise approach was helpful when he was hired as the first chief of police of Carpinteria, charged with forming a new agency. He had scores of yellow legal pads outlining his visions and ideas for bringing the new department to life. He was well liked but not especially bothered by making enemies. He had an irrepressible desire to move the department and his own dreams forward.

Three years later, he was elected sheriff of Santa Barbara County. His swearing in came after a tumultuous period of Isla Vista rioting and unrest. The county was rapidly growing and needed a long-term plan from its law enforcement officials, just the challenge he loved. He developed his team and led the office from being an overwhelmed department toward a new paradigm in professionalism.

His undersheriff for nine years, Jim Vizzolini, recalled that since the department is a paramilitary organization, people don’t just drop into the sheriff’s office anytime and chat. But Sheriff Carpenter was very approachable, and he made himself available for members of the department, as well as the public. For sure, Vizzolini said, he expected high standards in performance and behavior of department members. His department flourished, thanks to the hard work of the men and women who served the agency with endless dedication.

While Dad was still police chief, I remember a flurry of activity around the house as Governor Ronald Reagan was scheduled to be our dinner guest. This began a decades-long association with the future president. When the Western White House was established at Rancho del Cielo, the Sheriff’s department helped the U.S. Secret Service plan the visits, arrivals and departures, and off-the-record stops. My dad loved the opportunity to spend time riding around the ranch in the president’s old beat-up jeep as Mr. Reagan drove and told jokes.

After almost 20 years in office, my dad retired and moved to Virginia to be near family. His professional résumé is not the reason he was heroic to his friends and family. His genius, his gift, was not in accomplishing career goals, but in doing so with deep humor while still prioritizing his family, caring for his coworkers, and being genuinely grateful for every opportunity his life had offered him. Brash and determined described him; arrogant never would.

He traveled the world with my mother, loved planning and building elaborate gardens, and never lost his desire to learn or his wicked sense of humor. He loved the sea and sailing, politics, and his family. He was always so grateful for the wonderful opportunities his life offered and awed by the historic figures he had the luck to meet. As we weep at his passing, we also share with him the appreciation of a long, special life and a sense of gratefulness that he was gifted to us for so long.

In their long marriage, he and Linda had five children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.


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