After close to 50 years with the Palm Beacah County Sheriff’s Office, Chief Deputy Michael Gauger retires this week. The longtime Wellington resident worked his way up through the ranks to a position second only to the sheriff.
A farm boy raised on a dairy farm in Illinois on the Wisconsin border, Gauger has been working hard since he was in second grade. Now he will spend his time working on the community service work he has done for decades, volunteering on committees and boards that help make the community a safer and better place to live — and perhaps indulge in some travel.
Starting his career only a few years after moving to West Palm Beach in 1969, Gauger first decided he wanted to have a career in law enforcement on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Gauger said that he was a junior in English class when they heard the news. He wanted to be a Secret Service agent, but they required a college degree, which he did not yet have. In his high school yearbook, it states that he wanted to be a criminologist. Today, at 73, of his graduating class of 65 in Illinois, he may be the only one who made good on his dreams.
By 1970, Gauger was a special deputy with the PBSO. “I looked young, so I worked undercover narcotics,” he recalled.
During his career, Gauger worked in almost every department: patrol, tactical, narcotics and then into the detective bureau.
“That was when I retired the first time,” Gauger laughed. “I just can’t stop working.”
It only lasted a year while he worked for the State Attorney’s Office as an investigator. He was working on reforming the conditions and crime-ridden environment of housing projects and volunteered on cold case files. “Cases where I had promised the families that I would continue to have oversight,” he said.
Gauger went back to the PBSO when Sheriff Ric Bradshaw was elected, serving at the number two position, then called colonel. The title was later changed to chief deputy. “The duties were the same,” he said, adding that the administration of the department of corrections was later added to those responsibilities.
Gauger was drafted into the U.S. Army in January 1969. Not knowing he was allergic to some medications, he was given an analgesic to which he had a reaction. “I was put in sick bay, and on the fourth day I was sent for and told, ‘Son, you were inducted by mistake. Your career in the military is over. Here is your honorable discharge.’ I wanted to serve, but they said, ‘No,’” Gauger remembered.
When Gauger joined the PBSO, it was a much smaller agency.
“There were around seven or eight patrol officers who worked the east coast on each shift. Now we have more than 2,000 sworn officers. It has been phenomenal, the growth,” he said.
Working under six different sheriffs was a unique position to be in, as upper-level administrators were often replaced by the incoming sheriff. “I survived,” said Gauger, who was unusual in other ways, too.
“I was always kind of a little different because some of the people I worked for, their vision of policing was to get in the police car and drive around, and then they would gauge the amount of work you did by the number of miles on your car. I pretty much stayed in trouble because I was always out of my car making contacts with people,” Gauger said. “Making contacts with business owners, kids in the neighborhoods, building information sources — I call it building a network, and that network served me extremely well. By talking to people, I was able to develop sources of information.”
This led to success in not just documenting crimes but solving them.
“They would tell me who was committing the crimes,” he said. “When you arrest someone, you don’t just take them down and put them in the jail. You try to develop a relationship with them, build a little trust. I would say probably 90 to 95 percent of the people I arrested, I was friendly with afterward. Now it’s called community policing.”
Later, in the 1980s, when he was in a position of authority, the concept was brought into Palm Beach County. Gauger attended classes on the new protocol, and as it developed, he began to teach it and other courses to police academy students at what today is Palm Beach State College.
After Gauger’s experience overseeing the crime reductions in housing projects, he wrote a grant application for the county and received federal money to help clean up 27 such sites.
The efforts caught the attention of the inspector general of the Department of Housing & Urban Development, who visited the sites as a model of what the PBSO was doing, presenting Gauger and the department with an award.
Earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work during his career, Gauger also studied the corrections academy curriculum so he would have knowledge and experience of that aspect of his responsibilities. Still, with all those responsibilities, he always scheduled his work around his family, so he was present for them.
Gauger has worked on numerous substance abuse, DUI and mental health initiatives, sitting on and chairing boards of area organizations and institutions.
One man who came into contact with Gauger in a professional capacity during some of the community policing days is Chris Woody.
“I met [Gauger] more than 30 years ago,” Woody said. “I was a person with a drug and alcohol problem, and a problem with going to jail… Now I have 28 years clean and sober.”
He said that Gauger has been very active in the community of people with past substance abuse problems.
“He was a patrol officer, loyal to the sheriff, and he did his job,” Woody said. “He saved my life. He gave me back me… he is an outstanding man. I have now been a volunteer for 27 years. Now that he is retiring, we are going to lose our North Star, a guiding light that doesn’t move.”
A colleague who goes way back with Gauger is Joe Speicher, CEO of the South County Mental Health Center.
“His retirement means we are losing a very big advocate. He has helped coordination with our department and the PBSO. It is not contentious, and there is a lot of respect for the clients,” Speicher said.
Gauger has a degree in social work when many others in his position might have criminal justice degrees.
“He knows social work,” Speicher said, adding that Gauger has been a great resource for years and that he solves issues and has set up meetings with judges and representatives to help them understand the position of mental health clients. “Mike takes care. The relationship is much better, and the crisis unit is top-notch.”