OAKLAND — A 40-year veteran police officer made some seventh- and eighth-grade girls cry at Messalonskee Middle School Thursday.
At a surprise event honoring School Resource Officer Harold Woodside, several students teared up, saddened at the thought that he will be gone from the school after a planned June retirement.
“They told me to come into the chorus room because a kid was acting up,” said Woodside, 65, a member of the Oakland Police Department.
Instead, the 75 students in the school’s chorus surprised Woodside by shouting, using his nickname, “We love you, Officer Dusty,” singing him songs and telling him about the effect he has had on their lives.
Woodside, eyes bright behind his glasses, looked like a clean-shaven Santa Claus with a military haircut as he sat and was serenaded by the pupils, who sang “Everyday Hero” and “Instrument of Peace.”
Individual students then took turns at the front of the chorus room and read prepared statements to Woodside.
Woodside’s niece, 13-year-old Aspen Bedard, told “Uncle Dusty” that he is “a great man who deserves a rest.”
“He fought in the Vietnam War. He goes to schools when violence is occurring. He stands outside in the middle of the roads,” she said. “I’ll miss the guy who makes me smile 24/7 and laugh every day.”
Other students said Woodside raised their spirits by consistently greeting them, asking them how they were doing, and caring about their answers.
A few students said they appreciated that he directs traffic every day, in all kinds of weather, to help keep them safe.
“I try to treat them with dignity and respect, always,” Woodside said. “They’re great kids, all of them.”
Choral co-directors Kevin and Pam Rhein, who initiated the event on the children’s behalf, said Woodside socializes with students constantly, which helps him to calm a situation before it gets out of hand.
“He doesn’t just sit in an office,” Kevin Rhein said. “When he’s needed, everyone has a sense of relief when they see him.”
Woodside, who received a Purple Heart as an M-60 machine gunner during his service in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps, earned his associate’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Maine at Augusta.
Woodside was also the first Waterville city employee to be picked for an Employee of the Year award from the city. He was a Waterville police officer for 27 years, including five years as a school resource officer there, before switching to the Oakland-based position at Messalonskee in 2000.
Woodside has been involved in a couple of high-profile cases over the years, including a 2009 incident in which he successfully apprehended, without incident, a 14-year-old boy who brought a gun to school.
In 2002, he arrested a fugitive New York City drug dealer who had led police on an hour-long foot chase through the streets of Waterville.
In 2004, he was named the Law Officer of the Year at the state convention of the Maine American Legion, after being nominated by American Legion Veterans Memorial Post 205 on Eastern Avenue in Augusta.
Safa Saleh, 13, said she learned a lot from Woodside during drug prevention classes, which he has been teaching at area schools since 1990.
In 2007, Woodside was named Officer of the Year by the Maine Drug Awareness Resistance Education Officers’ Association.
“He’s an icon,” said Messalonskee High School Principal Jon Moody, who attended the event. “Even at the high school, everyone, I mean everyone, knows Officer Dusty.”
Oakland police Capt. Rick Stubbert, one of a few officers in attendance, said it will be difficult to replace Woodside, whose natural ability to connect with students was a great asset to his job.
“Our best plan right now is to convince him not to retire,” he said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287