Carbondale police chief hangs up his badge after 37 years
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Police Chief Gene Schilling officially retires Friday after nearly four decades with the Carbondale Police Department.
But don’t look for him to stray far from the community he has served and resided in for most of his life. And, don’t be surprised if his name shows up on the ballot for local office someday soon.
Schilling decided last spring to stay on for an extended stretch after the town selected former Rifle Police Sgt. Kirk Wilson as his successor.
Wilson has been learning the ropes from Schilling since joining the force in June, and formally takes over as chief after Friday.
The town has had just two police chiefs in the last 37 years since Schilling joined the team under then-Chief Fred Williams, before being promoted to chief in 1997 upon Williams’ “retirement.” Williams eventually returned to the department, working as a patrol officer for his former understudy for several years.
Asked what’s appealing about policing in Carbondale, and what kept him in the chief position so long, Schilling responded: “I would say serving the community on how they would like to be policed, and being a part of the community.
“By being involved in the community, you’re able to help and build long-lasting relationships with the people,” he said.
Born in Aurora, Schilling moved west with his family when he was 8 to Redstone, where the family built and operated the Crystal Valley Manor.
Schilling was in and out of the area over the years, with stints working at the Aspen Highlands and Sunlight ski areas, and at the Mid-Continent coal mine in Redstone, before turning to police and emergency services work.
He started his law enforcement career in 1980 with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, and was hired by Williams in 1983 soon after Williams succeeded former Carbondale Chief Verne Soucie when he was elected sheriff in 1982.
Schilling was promoted in 1990 to sergeant and in 1997 to chief.
Over the years, Schilling, now 68, has been active with the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District as a member of the elected board for several years, a position he still holds.
He’s also driven a school bus for many years, dating back to his pre-law enforcement years and continuing even when he became chief.
Even in retirement, “I will continue to drive the school bus for a while,” he said.
Former Carbondale mayor Stacey Patch Bernot also grew up in Carbondale. She admits Schilling not only drove the school bus to sporting events when she was in school, but might have even pulled her over when she was a young driver.
“We go way back in so many different roles for both of us,” Bernot said.
“Growing up, I always appreciated his approach to law enforcement, because there were plenty of times when he pulled me or my friends over in our younger years,” she said. “It was always through the lens of being community-minded, and helpful. He’s one of the least judgmental people I know.”
Even as Carbondale has changed, and grown, and had its fights over the years, Bernot said that sense of community has always persisted. And Schilling has been a big part of ensuring that, she said.
“Part of that is wanting to help people first,” Bernot said. “Sure, the department has had to shift, because the town has shifted. But it’s still community-minded, and that’s hard to come by in this day and age.”
Schilling calls it “rural policing.”
“We try to help people solve their issues, even though it may not even be a police matter,” he said.
That’s not to say some people can’t be difficult in that approach, or unaccepting of help.
“There are problems people have that we sometimes are unable to help with due to different circumstances, and not being understood,” Schilling said.
Some of the more difficult conversations have been in an attempt to educate town managers and trustees on police matters, and the way Carbondale approaches things in that regard, he said.
His biggest piece of advice for Wilson? “Education instead of citation,” Schilling said.
Retirement for he and wife Stephanie will likely include more vacation time and camping during the summer months, but they plan to stick around Carbondale and spend more time with the grandkids.
“Watch them grow, and attend their activities,” he said.
Local politics could also be on the horizon, Schilling said, hinting at a possible run for Carbondale mayor in a couple of years, or maybe the school board.
“Those are some places where I might look to stay involved,” he said.
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.