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BY MALINDA OSBORNE SVN REPORTER firstname.lastname@example.org
DIXON - Sheriff Tim Bivins, 54, has made it a point for the past 20 years to steel his nerves to pursue the county's criminals. So when friends, loved ones and well-wishers gathered Thursday night at the Post House to celebrate him on the eve of his retirement, it was almost too much for him to handle.
"Is it getting emotional in here or is it just me? Could someone turn it down?" he joked.
The amicable Bivins bid farewell as Lee County's longest-serving sheriff, a position he was elected to five times, besting nine opponents.
He announced his retirement in August, opting to spend more time with his wife, Terri, and their two grown children, Lindsey and Ryan. He also will continue to coach volleyball at Amboy High School.
"I set up a 1-800 number, so if you have any problems or complaints, call 1-800-CALL-VARGA," he said with a grin. Sheriff John Varga was expected to be sworn in this morning at the Lee County Courts Building.
The Dixon native worked a number of jobs before entering public service - he was a mechanic and a Culligan water delivery man. He was inspired to enter into law enforcement when he attended school in Minneapolis.
He was appalled at how much crime he witnessed. One incident in particular, he recalled, was a time someone made a fake call to the police and the officer gunned the person down. "I remember thinking, 'Well, why doesn't someone do something about it?'" And so he did.
He started as a patrol officer with the Dixon Police Department in June 1974. He was a patrol officer and detective for the sheriff's department before being elected sheriff in 1986.
Once again, his desire to change things was the motivating factor. He wasn't happy with how the department was being run, he said, and decided he had no right to complain unless he was going to do something about it.
"I've always been impressed by his dedication to his position," Chief Bailiff Steve Grevengoed said. " He's been committed to his office and led by example. Personally, the man has always been very approachable and easy to talk to."
At the ceremony, speakers gave presentations and Bivins received letters acknowledging his career from Illinois Senate representatives, U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert and President George Bush, which state Rep. Jerry Mitchell read aloud, along with adding his own congratulations.
Jason Anderson, director of economic development for Rochelle, was the emcee for the night. He said it was Bivins' creative approach to law enforcement that impressed him the most.
Soon after his 1986 victory, the new sheriff banned smoking in the jail amid much controversy. Now about 90 percent of Illinois jails have instituted a similar policy. Bivins also implemented stripped prison uniforms, reminiscent of traditional uniforms now mostly seen only in movies, as a way to make the prisoners easier to find should they escape. The move garnered national attention, as did his idea to save the county $5,000 a year by having McDonald's cater the jail's meals. That drew the attention of national radio host Paul Harvey, who told listeners "We need more people like him."
Bivins also started the work detail, in which prisoners donate their services to the county, the chaplain program and a video visitation system.
Above all, Bivins said he considers bringing the 911 emergency phone system to the county his greatest accomplishment as sheriff.
His only regret, he said, is that he didn't say "thank you" or "good job" enough.
And being a sheriff "doesn't do anything to polish your personality. It makes you cynical and guarded and put up barriers ... It'll be nice to be a human being again," he said.
Reach Malinda Osborne at 284-2222 or (800) 798-4085, ext. 526.