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Wenham picks police chief's successor

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Wenham picks police chief's successor, four years in advance
By Steve Landwehr
Staff writer

WENHAM — Police Chief William MacKenzie isn't quite ready to retire. He's not even sure he'll be prepared to turn in his badge when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 65 in four years.

But the selectmen have already hand-picked a successor, one whose love of police work began in childhood.

Last month, selectmen promoted Sgt. Ken Walsh to the new position of deputy chief, with the intention of making him chief when MacKenzie retires. Though they acknowledge that naming a successor so far in advance is unusual, police and town officials said a unique set of circumstances compelled them to act now.

MacKenzie will spend much of his time overseeing construction of a new police station and Town Hall starting in the spring, so officials said he'll need more time to groom Walsh for the chief's job.

"Bill's attention will be distracted for about a year-and-a-half, so he needs as long with Ken as possible," Town Administrator Jeffrey Chelgren said.

Town officials are also seeking stability at a time when two other department heads and an assistant are planning to retire. Selectmen did not want to be faced with changes in so many departments at the same time.

And why not go with a candidate whose passion has been local police work, even before adulthood?

Lifetime goal

An uncle inspired Ken Walsh to a career as a police officer, and his grandfather's death convinced him the best place to do it was Wenham.

Walsh grew up in Danvers and dreamed of joining that force. At 18, he was working as a civilian dispatcher in Danvers. When there was an opening for an auxiliary police officer in Wenham in 1987, he applied for the job and got it.

In those days, he and his grandfather liked to spend Wednesdays at the Lakeview Golf Course. Walsh had been on the job as a reserve officer about six months when a call came over the police radio for a "man down" at the course.

"I was the first responder," Walsh said. "It turns out that after birdie-ing the 18th hole, my grandfather had a heart attack and collapsed."

It was a pivotal moment, Walsh said. He went from being the first police officer on the scene to someone experiencing the very personal emotions of the death of a loved one.

"I'll never forget the way I was treated by this department that day," he said. "It was a big reason why I fell in love with this town."

Walsh was recently a finalist for chief's jobs in Georgetown and Eliot, Maine, but says he interviewed for them "as practice." MacKenzie said he urged him to stick around, confident Walsh would be chosen to succeed him, and the new deputy chief says he's glad he waited.

No longer one of the guys

MacKenzie said the biggest challenge facing Walsh will be resolving personnel issues. When he took over from former Chief Peter Carnes, MacKenzie said he was well-versed in putting together a budget, but pretty clueless about solving in-house problems.

"It's a balancing act between what people want and what you can give them," he says.

MacKenzie described Walsh as a peacemaker, and thinks he'll be up to the task. But he warns Walsh a part of his life will soon end.

"I loved the camaraderie of police work," MacKenzie says. "The hardest part was leaving that behind. When you step into the chief's role, you step away from all your friends."
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