ALMA — Russell White didn’t set out to become a police officer.
But that was before he became fast friends with the late Randy Chastain.
Life has a way of imitating art, and by the time White was done chatting it up with Chastain, the former Mulberry police chief, a foundation as one of the more respected officers in the state of Arkansas was born.
This month, White is retiring following a 25-year run as the city of Alma’s police chief.
“I started at Fort Smith PD in 1980 and I came here in ’81,” White said. “I lived here at the time, so this was like coming home. I was basically a kid; (but) this place is a big place in my heart.”
“If I really had a way to sum up Russell White, with him being in law enforcement, I would say he is the very best of the best,” former Alma High School Principal Jerry Valentine said. “He’s very professional. You think about the community, and what he means to the success of Alma, and Russell’s been able to provide outstanding leadership — not only with the patrons but with the department he’s put together. The police department has had phenomenal growth for a town of our size.
“He’s been able to hire some quality people — these are good people who could work anywhere they wanted but chose to work here with Russell.”
A 1976 graduate of Russellville High School, and later Arkansas Tech, White moved to Mulberry, where by chance he became next-door neighbors with Chastain.
“Randy and I got to be good friends,” White said. “I hadn’t really thought about being a police officer — it wasn’t on my radar. Just hanging out with him got me interested in it. So, when I got through (college), I started applying for police departments and went to work for Fort Smith PD, literally, as soon as I got out (graduated).
“Thirty-nine years later, I’m still trying it.”
People retire, people come and go. These are everyday occurrences in all facets of life, police officers included.
Over the course of four decades, White saw a lot of technical changes, too.
“I remember when we got our first computer — a Commodore 64!” White said. “Now, we were able to do warrants.”
Soon, fax machines and cellphones followed. As did the overall police presence, something White takes pride in.
Today, there is a police presence almost everywhere you turn.
“We’re a small town; there’s 5,500 people,” White said. “It’s a little city that’s actually a little bigger than it actually is, and it’s always been that way. You drive through town, at anytime, and you have traffic problems. It’s a small city with a lot of people that come and go. Our officers are busy, (but) our crime is low. I think there are several reasons for that, but most of those reasons come back to the citizens.
“They don’t tolerate crime.”
Nearly 6½ decades ago, Alma’s population was close to 775. By 2017, the population had grown to 5,700.
That number swells during the day as surrounding communities — Mountainburg, Dyer, Kibler, Rudy, Van Buren and Mulberry — converge on Crawford County’s second-largest city.
“We have a low crime rate, but I didn’t make it that way — it was that way when I got here,” White said. “This department was a really good department when I came to work here.”
Back in ‘81, the ebb and flow of the city, the overall structure and landscape, was a far cry from what it is today.
The Alma Police Department is still in the same building, White said. “I believe this (building) was built in 1978, though it’s been expanded.”
“There are lots of changes and lots of different directions,” White said. “Obviously, the size of this department has changed. When I came here, there were three total police officers, and we had four total employees.”
White said there somewhere “around 25 employees” now. But the biggest change is the on-site dispatch center, just a few yards down the hallway from his office.
“Back then (’81), we didn’t have our own dispatch center,” White said. “Back then, we were dispatched out of the sheriff’s office. There are a lot of changes, but there are still rules, and because of that you’ll always have job security.”
White had an emphasis on having a strong bond with the Alma School District, too.
“His officers respect him,” Alma principal Brian Kirkendoll said. “We have resource officers here and every time we do something, they’ll tell you, ‘Well, I have to run it by the chief.’
“It’s a lot of mutual respect.”
Every officer has that one case they remember most. The Morgan Nick case is never far from White’s mind.
In June 1995, Nick disappeared from an Alma little league baseball park. White was immediately on the case.
“I was chief 11 months when that occurred,” White said. “I became the chief in July (1994), and that happened in June of ’95. In my police chief career, it’s been here basically the whole time. I’ve been involved in it the whole time; I always thought it was my case, too, even though we have investigators working on it. They (investigators) can tell you, if you ask them, most of their cases, I don’t get too involved in. But that’s not the case with Morgan Nick. I’ve tried to stay abreast in everything all the way through.”
Investigators have come and gone over the years, White said, with promotions and retirement.
“My captain, Jeff Pointer, he was here then, but he was a dispatcher,” White said. “Ronnie Brown, our (Crawford County) sheriff, he was the first investigator on it.”
White believes the case is solvable, though it remains cold.
“It’s a solvable case, with the right DNA or if someone comes forward,” he said. “It just hasn’t happened.”
Nick would be closing in on her 31st birthday.
“I’m hoping it will be solved,” White said. “My timeline has changed. In the beginning, I thought, ‘We’ll solve this now, in the first day or two.’ Then it was, ‘We’ll solve this soon.’
“I never thought it would go a year.”
Home sweet home
Like all people, in all walks of life, White has had job opportunities.
“I’ve had some opportunities to do some other things,” White said. “Being from Russellville, one time they had a new mayor, and he called me. He said, ‘What would you think about being the chief in Russellville?’ I thought, well maybe I would, because that’s home to me.
“But I went home and bounced it off my wife and kids. Well, it wasn’t home to them; their home was Alma! And honestly, my home is Alma, too. I’ve been here longer than any other place in my life — it is my home.”
Hard-working people make Alma bigger than it plays.
“I think it’s a special community,” White said. “The late Paul Gant, he used to be our judge for a long time (37 years), and he said Alma always played bigger than they were. He said it didn’t matter if it was the city, the school, or whatever … it just always played bigger than what they were.
“He meant that as a compliment.”
Russell White is driving a bus. It’s 1 p.m. on a summer afternoon. He and Kirkendoll, named Alma principal this spring as the retiring Valentine’s replacement, are driving through an unpopulated portion of western Kansas. The First Baptist Church of Alma charter bus is headed for Gunnison, Colorado, for a week of rafting, grilling burgers and being with friends.
It’s 875 miles from Alma to Gunnison. White and Kirkendoll cover the trip in 14 hours.
“I’ve spent a week with him, through the church, in Colorado, and I really got to know him,” Kirkendoll said. “The two of us drove our church bus, we have CDLs (Commercial Driver’s License), so we would tag-team to Gunnison, Colorado all night — taking turns to sleep while someone else drove.
“He’s all about serving others.”
“I get asked that a lot,” White said. “I tell people, ‘I’ve never not had a job since I was like 14.’ I worked full-time when I was in college, so it’s new territory to me. I knew my retirement date seven years ago, but I thought well, when I’m 61, I’ll be ready to retire.
“I have four kids; two from my first marriage and two step kids (Lindsey Johnson and Payton Radley),” White said. “I have seven grandkids. They’re all in Arkansas, but they’re spread out a little bit.
“My oldest daughter (Dr. Laura White Hollenbach) lives in Hot Springs, and my son (Ross) lives in Siloam Springs.”
“Initially, I’ll just retire, and if I hate retirement, I’ll find a job.”