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Ferndale to give late chief’s badge back to family

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

In a reunion some 47 years in the making, Ferndale police are in the last steps of efforts to reunite the family of late Police Chief Neil McGillis with the badge he got in retirement.

The story started with a recent post on the popular Ferndale Forum, said Sgt. Baron Brown, who works in community engagement and social media for the department. A poster said she had found the chief’s badge in Roseville in 1969, and had rediscovered it recently at her home in Fenton. Would the department be interested in grabbing it?

Police are close to reuniting the family of Neil McGillis with the badge he was given in retirement.

Indeed they were, and not just for sentimental reasons, Brown explained.

“We didn’t want her to lose track of it, and for it to fall into the hands of someone whose intentions aren’t as good as hers,” Brown said. “We hear stories all the time of people using badges to gain advantages over others or to commit crimes. And we figured Chief McGillis’ family would appreciate having it back.”

On one side, it’s a standard badge that has “Chief” and “Police” up top, “Ferndale” at the bottom, and “retired” in the middle. On its back side, it says “Neil J. McGillis. Aptd 7-1-37. Retd. 2.28.69.”

Ferndale police reached out to their counterparts in Fenton, who arranged to pick the badge up Oct. 19. That same day, Fenton dispatch supervisor Samantha Sturgis put it in the mail. Ferndale acknowledged receipt Monday morning via Twitter with thanks to Fenton.

Now the plan is to connect the badge and the family once and for all, hopefully later this week, Brown said.

McGillis

McGillis served the Ferndale Police Department from July 1, 1937, until his retirement on Feb. 28, 1969, and worked his way through the ranks to police chief, a title he held from 1957-69.

He died Oct. 15, 1970, almost 46 years to the day from when his badge was recovered.

Then-Mayor Bruce Garbutt spoke at McGillis’ funeral, saying the city owed the chief a debt for keeping it safe.

Though a border city with Detroit, Ferndale went untouched by the city’s 1967 riot, which took place a few miles away. During the riot, Ferndale police officers observed the action from the roof of Ferndale High School, said Jean Spang, a research specialist with the Ferndale Historical Society. Detroit later would acknowledge its neighbor’s assistance in ensuring the violence didn’t get any worse than it did.

The back of former Ferndale Police Chief Neil McGillis is shown.

Michael Woody, Detroit Police Department’s media relations director, went so far as to buy his badge when he retired from sworn duty Sept. 6. He hopes to pass it down to his grandchildren.

“When you take the oath of office, the badge becomes a symbol of not only what you do, but who you are and what you accomplished throughout your career,” he said. “It never leaves your side. It becomes a part of you. Even when you’re asleep, it’s never more than an arm’s reach away.”

That a police department would want to return a former chief’s badge to his family, all these years later, did not surprise the former sergeant.

“Of all the things you possess during your career, the badge is the culmination of all of it. It’s where your power as an officer extends from. It’s right there in forefront of your experiences and emotions as an officer, from complaints to the thank yous.”

McGillis did not have any children, but Brown said he has reached the chief’s nephew, who lives in Ferndale, and will give him the badge.

jdickson@detroitnews.com