Click photo to enlarge

As Murl Harpham, 80, sat in his Eureka home on a Friday afternoon flipping through a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from the early days of his career in law enforcement, he recounted memories -- his first marijuana arrest, an office arson and a plane crash in Humboldt Bay.

Most days, the former Eureka police chief said he was able to put those memories up on the shelf and leave his work behind him when he came home.

But some memories refuse to stay put.

Harpham said he's still haunted by the 1982 slaying of then-Sheriff Gene Cox, shot seven times in the back and killed. Or the memory of holding a young burn victim and realizing that the boy's arms were shedding skin as the child gasped for air. Or when, at the scene of a deadly car crash, he saw someone impaled through the face by a steering wheel.

Harpham worked for the Eureka Police Department for 56 years before retiring -- the only person in the state to have served in his original police department until stepping down, according to the California Chiefs and Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

The memories still shake him, but they're only three from a lifetime of service. His most gratifying moments include tracking down a serial rapist, delivering a baby in the back seat of his patrol car and just helping to solve a neighborhood's everyday problems, he said.

”It's been a good life,” Harpham said. “I guess that's why I stayed there so long.


Advertisement

It's always been rewarding.”

Over the weekend, 245 people attended a retirement dinner for Harpham to show their appreciation and share stories.

Family and friends said he's impacted countless lives over nearly six decades -- from the young officers he mentored, to the adults he counseled in his home, to the children he coached in youth sports.

”He's been kind of like the stable rock that's always been there when we've needed him,” said Mayor Frank Jager, who worked with Harpham in the department for 19 years. “Murl just loved being a cop. He loved coming to work every day. He loved putting bad guys in jail.”

Harpham started out as a patrol officer and worked his way up the ranks.

”He's worked every position in that department,” Jager said.

He was offered the chief position three times before accepting in June 2012.

”I didn't want to sit at a desk and leave the field,” Harpham said. “But I've come to realize the young guys are the ones that need to be there chasing these bad guys around.”

Harpham isn't without his critics.

While interim chief, he infamously declared in 2007 the city was turning into a “hellhole.” He was a captain on the force during what some termed the department's insurrection against former Chief Garr Nielsen in 2008, and Harpham served as interim chief during the Occupy Eureka protests, during which police arrested protesters in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse from 2011 to 2013.

”Whether you loved or loathed Murl, I think you had to respect him,” current Chief Andrew Mills said.

Harpham moved to Humboldt County in 1952 from Snohomish, Wash., to attend Humboldt State University on a football scholarship. He majored in English, journalism and radio broadcasting.

”Of course they didn't have TV then,” Harpham said.

While a student, Harpham earned a job at the Humboldt Times as the police reporter. His late wife, Blanche, worked for the Humboldt Standard. The two papers later combined to become the Times-Standard.

One day while interviewing then-police Chief Cedric Emahiser about a recent council meeting, Harpham was told the department was hiring three officers and offered a job. He said he accepted after discussing it with his wife because it paid more, he already knew some of the officers and he wanted to participate more in police work instead of just writing about it.

Harpham's first day on the job was June 15, 1957.

”There was no training program like we have now,” Harpham said. “He (Emahiser) gave me a penal, vehicle and municipal code and said 'Here, read these.'”

In the early days, Harpham said he patrolled the endless bars along Second Street -- not yet called Old Town -- that all the mill, timber and fishermen frequented. Most nights, he never left the area.

By the 1960s, attitudes changed, Harpham said, with the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the Vietnam War.

Officers went from walking neighborhoods to wearing helmets and patrolling in cars.

”We lost that contact we had,” Harpham said. “People talk about community policing being a new thing. That's not true. When I came on, we were preached community policing.”

Cops were also required to live within city limits and encouraged to be involved in the community. Harpham coached youth baseball and football for 27 years.

”He's educated, he's smart, and he knows the city,” Jager said. “He knows the people in it.”

Jager added Harpham is also a good mentor who likes to play practical jokes on people. He recalled one time while responding to a burglary in Henderson Center, Harpham drove a rookie officer's vehicle, which had been parked running with the door open, into an alley to teach the officer a lesson.

He's also a hard worker who doesn't complain, his son, Eureka police Detective Ron Harpham said. In his 56 years, Murl Harpham said he never took a sick day, but he did miss days for injuries.

”I fell off a roof with a burglar one time,” Murl Harpham said matter-of-factly.

He said he considered leaving the department twice for the California Highway Patrol, but turned it down.

”I had five kids who I wanted to get an education here,” Murl Harpham said. “I didn't want to be a yo-yo running up and down the highway.”

He also said he loved police work too much.

On his last day, Murl Harpham arrived early, dressed in uniform, and began working.

”I could hear him returning phone calls and just doing things along those lines,” Ron Harpham said. “I kind of started wondering if he'd changed his retirement date.”

When Ron Harpham left at 5 p.m., Murl Harpham was still there.

”He loved being a cop, and he loved working for the city of Eureka,” Ron Harpham said. “There's no doubt about that.”

In retirement, Murl Harpham said he plans to travel around the United States, and spend more time at his cabin in Trinity County.

”I don't regret anything,” he said. “I've had a great opportunity. The city's treated me well.”

Lorna Rodriguez can be reached at 441-0506 or lrodriguez@times-standard.com. Follow her on Twitter @LornaARodriguez.