Ronnie Denton: to serve and protect still going strong
Debby Schamber- For the Record
Over the last 79 years and across the nation, 13,020 officers have been killed in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The number of officers who lost their lives in the line of duty in Orange is three. However, the fewer in number does not lessen the pain for the families, friends and the community.
Police Chief Ed O’Reilly was standing outside the Ingram Cafe on May 29, 1935, located on the southwest corner of Fifth and Main Streets, which is now the Lutcher Theater parking lot. He was talking to a friend when Edgar Eskridge, a First Baptist preacher, drove by and shot at the police chief. O’Reilly had just celebrated his 41st birthday a few days before when he lost his life.
The city commission met two days later and appointed John D. Godwin Jr., 31 years old, as acting police chief. But, less than four months later, he too would be killed in the line of duty while conducting a traffic stop on two fugitives accused of stealing a cab. Godwin was shot in the abdomen and died the following day.
Nearly 40 years passed before another officer lost his life in the line of duty. Captain Danny Gray, 31, became the third police officer killed in the line of duty on June 28, 1974 during an attempted jail escape.
Ronnie Denton, of the Bridge City Police Department, was there the day Gray lost his life.
Denton graduated from Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School in 1968. Straight out of high school he was drafted into the U.S. Army. During his time in Vietnam he saw unsightly things including many killings. But, he never expected to come home and witness the death of his best friend. Denton had grown up with Gray. Upon his return, Gray helped Denton secure a job at the Orange Police Department. At the time, the only opening was as a dispatcher.
On June 28, 1974, at 1 a.m., Charles Ray Dowden, was arrested for robbing a convenience store. He was taken to the police station where he was booked and placed in the city jail on the second floor of the police station. The old jail is located behind the current Orange City Hall.
Billy Wayne Dowden, who had been at the convenience store with his brother, decided to aid his brother in escaping from jail.
Billy Wayne Dowden and Clifford Blansett entered the police station around 4 a.m. and went to the dispatcher’s booking office, where two police officers and Denton were working. Dowden slammed open the door to the dispatcher’s office, pointed an automatic pistol at the police officers and declared, “I have come to get Charles.” Gray lunged at Dowden and grabbed the hand in which he was holding the gun while placing his other arm around Dowden forcing him into the hall. The door, operating on a spring closing device, closed automatically behind them. After a brief exchange of gunfire, Gray was found dead.
After the death of his best friend, Denton had a lot of soul-searching to do on whether to continue his career in law enforcement.
“I knew Danny would want me to stay, ” Denton said.
He remained at OPD for a total of four years. He also worked at the Nederland Police Department for 13 years, but wanted to come back home. He made the move to Bridge City in 1994. Now the 67-year old officer is currently a patrol sergeant with no plans to retire from a job he loves.
“I am very blessed to have the strength to continue doing what I am doing,” Denton said. “When I retire, it will just kill me.”
Denton did not receive a formal education on being a police officer and took it upon himself to learn the “proper ways” to do things. He attributes his success as a police officer and being well-rounded person to his parents.
“My dad instilled me with morals and ideas,” Denton said. “It’s very important to have common sense too and know how to use resources.”
He thanks God for his gift of common sense, but also the lessons he has learned from influential men such as Joey Hargrave who told him if he wanted to be sergeant someday he would have to work on writing reports and learning computers. From his current bosses, Paul Davis and Brad Frye, Denton continued to learn about computers and updated programs in addition to the latest policies and procedures.
Denton is grateful for his wife who is always understanding and has stood by him.
Through his job, Denton is often in the presence of children and uses the opportunity to pass on a little wisdom.
“I tell the kids to put God first, their family second and their job third,” he said. “If you do that, you will go a long way.”
He also gives them a little insight into his personal life in hopes they will take it to heart and learn from his experience when he tells them of his 17-year-old grandson’s death. Denton tries to hold back the tears as he tells of the night his grandson sneaked out of the house to go “joy riding” in Port Arthur. As a result, he was killed in a wreck.
“When you make a bad choice in life, you may pay the price,” he added. “I would give anything to have him back.”
He ends his story to children with a reminder to always tell their parents, “I love you.”
Denton admits his biggest challenges over the years has been the advances of technology and the use of computers in police cars.
“If someone had told me in 1974 that we would have computers in cars that would print out tickets, I would not have believed it,” he says with a chuckle.
However, an even bigger challenge has been society as a whole.
“It’s hard being a policeman nowadays,” he said.
Denton says police are often perceived as the “bad guys.”
“I love people, but I still have to do my job,” he said.. “Making arrests and working traffic does not make us bad people, we are just doing our job,”
After his shift ends, Denton goes out to his backyard shop to unwind. For at least 30 minutes he thinks about his day before he emerges refreshed and ready to do it all over again. Other times he may stay a bit longer to do a little woodworking or welding.
One thing is for sure, for Denton there will definitely be more days ahead of patrolling the streets of Bridge City and certainly maintaining his oath to protect and serve.
PHOTO: Ronnie Denton, Patrol Sergeant for the Bridge City Police Department, has been a police officer for more than 40 years and has no plans to retire anytime soon.