Sedalia Police Chief John DeGonia sat in his blue-walled office and opened a photo album.
He smiled as he turned the pages of pictures, letters and newspaper clippings from his earliest days on the police force. Plaques, wall hangings and Barney Fife decor filled the office around him, an office he now passes to his successor, Cmdr. Matt Wirt.
His retirement date at the Sedalia Police Department arrived Friday, a day shy of 32 years since he started as an SPD patrol officer. He will end his three-decade career and move on to Bothwell Regional Health Center, where he will serve as director of security. DeGonia starts at the hospital May 7.
“I think it’ll be good,” he said of his new chapter. “It’s just going to take a little bit to walk away from 32 years and walk out the door.”
In an emotional press conference, Chief John DeGonia announced his retirement after 32 years with the Sedalia Police Department.
DeGonia started his first day at SPD, April 28, 1986, with a scolding from then-Chief Jimmy Carter. Out of the five new officers SPD had hired, DeGonia was the last to get the job. Carter was blunt about his opinion of his newest patrol officer.
“We don’t think you’re going to work out,” he said. “But we’re going to try.”
Later that day, DeGonia walked down the hall in his new light-blue police uniform, which is memorialized in his photo album. Carter stopped DeGonia again, berating him for the wrinkles in his shirt.
“They just gave it to me,” DeGonia said, exasperated. “I just put it on right out of the package.”
DeGonia joined the day shift, where the senior officers were subject to giving him a hard time, as with many police rookies. DeGonia, a St. Louis native, was still green in his law enforcement career. He started less than a year before as a sheriff’s deputy in Humansville, a town northwest of Springfield with a population less than 1,000.
A ride-along with a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper had piqued DeGonia’s interest in police work as a post-college career. They patrolled through Humansville, where the local sheriff was looking for a second deputy.
DeGonia, a college football offensive tackle, quickly caught the sheriff’s eye.
“You’re a big guy,” he said. “Would you want to help me patrol the town and be a sheriff’s deputy?”
DeGonia agreed, and he kept the job for eight months before testing and applying with SPD. Once he became the fifth man in, he moved to Sedalia.
“To be very honest, I was going to stay here just a few years, then move on to something ‘bigger and better,’” he said. “The longer I stayed here, the more I enjoyed it, the more I started loving Sedalia and loving the police department. This is where I wanted to stay.”
He continued on patrol for several years, earning the rank of sergeant in 1996. During that time, he elected to become a K9 officer and worked with a police dog, Dasso. The motivated, high-strung dog loved to work and became an effective partner for DeGonia.
The two worked together for years, sniffing out narcotics and catching escaped prisoners from the Pettis County Jail. Dasso was accomplished in his efforts, winning first place in a statewide drug work competition.
It was on a 1999 drug search that Dasso introduced DeGonia to Wirt, for what the next SPD chief remembers to be the first time the two men met. Wirt, a police trainee at the time, had been stuck with the task of guarding a confiscated car in SPD’s garage. Then, he unexpectedly came face-to-face with Dasso.
“They brought (DeGonia) in to run the dog around to smell it for drugs,” Wirt said. “I was maintaining the car. He didn’t realize that I was in there, and so he let the dog in.”
Dasso, once named the second-best bite dog in Missouri, bounded around the corner and confronted the fresh-faced officer. Wirt called out for DeGonia to corral the dog, whom he said was “not happy” to see him.
“I had to start hollering for help so I didn’t have to do anything to the dog and the dog didn’t have to do anything to me,” Wirt said. “The first time I remember meeting him is him yelling at the dog not to attack me.”
After the initial moment of anxiety, DeGonia and Wirt went on to develop a positive working relationship as the two made their way up SPD’s ranks. DeGonia was promoted to commander in 2002, and his time working with the K9 unit came to an end.
After Dasso passed away, DeGonia commemorated the dog with a left-arm tattoo of his image.
“I was with him when he got it done,” Cmdr. Larry Ward said. “Obviously, that was an important part of his career here, and that bond is always special.”
Ward and DeGonia have served at SPD together since Ward joined in 1989 and fulfilled leadership roles concurrently since then. Neither realized in their early years on the force how far they would climb.
“I can’t say that 29 years ago that I knew he would be chief and I’d be commander,” Ward said. “You’re just treading water, trying to learn what you’re doing, and before you know it, it’s here.”
DeGonia drew on his wide-ranging experience and education with SPD when he took national testing to become chief in 2006. He scored the highest of three candidates and earned the top rank in the department, an office he thought years before he would never reach.
DeGonia brought an encouraging, light-hearted approach to the position and trusted the input of commanders and sergeants in decision making. Wirt was promoted to commander in 2011 and earned the chief’s confidence.
“He believed in me and what I could do, and that’s the biggest thing that I will always remember about him,” Wirt said. “Through my entire life, there’s not always been a lot of people that believed in me, and he did believe in me.”
The next chief of the Sedalia Police Department is set, as a commander steps to the top of city law enforcement.
As Wirt steps into the role of chief, DeGonia prepares to start a new life outside the police force. He said he wasn’t seeking to take a position at Bothwell, but the security position opened at the right time. He became eligible to collect a full retirement pension in January and decided to close the album on his years in law enforcement.
“That’s what I really, really enjoyed, seeing new people come in, making a career, giving them a chance,” he said. “That’s what you live for to see. Somebody else is starting a young career now, and hopefully they have a long career.”