Growing up in North Lawrence in the 1950s and early 1960s, Bill Shepard thought the best career opportunity a black man had was in the military.
So after graduating from Lawrence High School in 1962, Shepard joined the Marines. And in September 1982, he traded his Marine uniform for another uniform, one worn by a Douglas County Sheriff's officer.
"Even when I was a kid I always thought about being a cop," Shepard said during a recent interview. "If anything, I think being in the military helped me in this job."
His military experience and leadership ability were among the main reasons Sheriff Rick Trapp asked Shepard to be his undersheriff, a position that also carries the rank of major.
"He had a great reputation in the department and the community," Trapp said of Shepard. "He'd been in the military and he had leadership skills. I wanted someone who was good enough he could be sheriff, himself.
Trapp continued, "He's got a unique ability of having a command presence yet being considerate of his co-workers."
The walls and shelves in Shepard's office display photos and other mementos from his days as a Marine, job as a sheriff's officer and family.
When he became a Marine, Shepard had no idea he would end up in the middle of a war. In April 1965, Shepard, an aircraft maintenance worker and parachute rigger, found himself among the first Marines to be sent to Da Nang, South Vietnam.
It was the first of three tours in that war-torn country. His second, in 1968 on the heels of the Tet offensive, was the worst, he said. Although he did not see combat, Shepard did take his turn at guard duty around the Chu Lai air base. Enemy rocket attacks on the base occurred four or five times a day, he said.
"If you have never been in one of those, believe me, it will put the fear of God in you," he said.
Before he left the Marines, Shepard served as a drill sergeant, training recruits at the base on Parris Island, S.C. He also was a member of the now-defunct Navy parachute demonstration team known as the Chuting Stars. He never jumped out of a plane again after he left that team.
"I was only 27 years old and I enjoyed it then," Shepard said with a laugh. "Now it would take three grown men and a baby to throw me out of a plane."
Much of Shepard's military career occurred during a time of racial strife in the United States. But Shepard said he had fewer racial problems in the Marines.
Shepard already had experienced racial segregation in Lawrence.
"You didn't think about it," he said. "You couldn't eat downtown. Our swimming pools were farm ponds. We had to sit in the back of the movie theater. To me, that's just the way it was."
In step with change
Shepard's second career with the sheriff's department has coincided with a tremendous period of growth and change in Douglas County.
"A lot has changed," he said. "We used to be able to give breaks to people. I used to be able to pull someone over for drunken driving, chew them out and call for someone to come and get them. Now you can't do that anymore."
Drugs are one of the biggest law enforcement problems in Douglas County and Lawrence, Shepard said.
"Marijuana was big, then powder cocaine," he said. "Now it's crack cocaine and methamphetamines."
Shepard thinks a special drug investigations task force made up of police and sheriff's officers is helping to stem the drug trade in the area.
Shepard has no aspirations to become sheriff himself. In fact, he expects a short stint as undersheriff.
"When Rick asked me to take this job I promised I'd stay on for two years," he said. "I'll be 58 years old then. It will be time for other things."
Shepard, who has five grown children, lives with his second wife, Shang, in North Lawrence. A member of the St. James AME Church, Shepard enjoys woodworking. He takes motorcycle trips with other law enforcement officers.
A former high school cross country champ in 1962, Shepard also still likes to jog.
"Only today it's more like an old man's shuffle," he said.
-- Staff writer Mike Belt can be reached at 832-7165.