Remembering Frank Lyons - Common sense policing in a small town

FRANK LYONS, while Chief of Police in Wilmington, would go out of his way to help others. In this file photo Lyons started a campaign to put out candy boxes to help a local youngster with medical bills. Free Press file photo.

Marney Simon

A helping hand. A word of advice. A commitment to the community.

Back when Frank Lyons was the chief of police in Wilmington, being more than just a cop was part of the deal.

Franklin Lyons, 84, passed away on Feb. 6 at the home of his son, Braidwood Police Chief Todd Lyons.

The elder Lyons became chief of police in Wilmington in 1971, and served the community for 25 years until his retirement.

Unlike today’s appointments for chiefs or police commissioners across the country, which are often politicized, back then, it was about as casual as it gets.

“One day he was sitting down at a restaurant, and the mayor at the time was having breakfast, my dad was sitting across from him, and he said ‘oh by the way, I appointed you chief of police last night,’ and that was how he became chief,” Todd Lyons said of his father.

Lyons said Frank, who grew up near Springfield, had taken the entrance exam for the Chicago Police Department, but decided he would rather not raise his family in the city.

“He chose Wilmington, he and my mom made the decision that they wanted to raise us in Wilmington and not in Chicago,” Lyons said.

And that, the younger Lyons said, was the start of his and his three siblings’ lessons on what it means to be part of a community.

“There was an open door policy at our house,” Lyons said. “If we had friends come over, they were always welcome to our house. We would wake up and we’d never know if there would be another child in our house.

“My parents, whenever there was a situation where they had to take a child into protective custody, they were coming to our house,” Lyons continued, noting back then, there wasn’t a department of children and family services around to help with cases where children needed placement. “So, there were several different times that we had different kids or even adults sometimes who were staying at our house, because they had nowhere to go. So, that’s how we were raised as a family.”

Todd Lyons said his father was an example to both law enforcement and the community as a whole of how to enforce the law with compassion and kindness.

In addition to being chief, Frank also coached several youth sports, and engaged in what everyone referred to as “common sense” policing.

“I think that how he’ll be remembered is how he treated people,” Lyons said. “He didn’t judge people for the situations they were in. He used to tell us kids, until you’ve walked in their shoes, you’ll never know what they’re going through. That was a big thing. Just don’t judge people because you don’t know what they’re going through.

“If a family ever needed something or he knew of a family that needed something, like a Christmas tree, the guys responded to a call and the family had kids but they didn’t have a tree or presents, so my dad went over scannerland and then people from Wilmington brought stuff to the police department so that stuff could be delivered,” he continued. “That was the kind of chief of police he was.”

Todd said that now that he’s a police chief himself, he looks to his father’s career, and the others who have served Wilmington, as inspiration.

“I try to take the best of every police chief that I’ve worked for. And I think now, the way things are going, I think my dad might have been the ideal chief then as what they’re looking for now. Somebody who’s involved in the community, somebody who cares about the community and who uses common sense,” he said.

“It is hard to be that kind of chief, because it is more administrative work now,” he added. “I find myself behind the desk doing admin stuff, and thinking I need to get out more. I need to be that chief. What stories are people going to tell about me after I’m chief of police?”

Todd Lyons stared out in the Wilmington Police Department, but only worked with his dad for about three years before Frank retired. Still, he learned the importance of being a chief that a small community can rely upon.

“In my eulogy I talked about who my dad was and how proud I was of him and looking back as an adult, what kind of life he provided for us kids. He was probably one of the lowest paid chiefs in Illinois, he was paid horrible back then, but he never complained about it. It wasn’t about money for him, it was just about being the chief of police in Wilmington and caring about his community,” Lyons said, adding that his father was known to pass up a raise so that officers could get small increases instead.

“When we would go on vacation, every single morning he’d do the same routine. He would call every morning, anything happening, is anything going on. So, we’d be in Florida and he would call the police department from Florida,” Lyons said. “So, he had his thumb on things, he know what was going on in the police department.”

Lyons said that recently, with his father’s health on the decline and the pandemic making it difficult to visit relatives in long term care facilities, he and his family made the decision to bring Frank home.

“His health was starting to decline, he had dementia, but he never didn’t know who I was,” Lyons said, adding that he was able to move his father to his own home in Braidwood and care for him for the last five weeks of his life.

“Five days before he passed, one of the last clear things he said, I would come home in my uniform to check on him, and he looked at me in my uniform and he said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ He said it twice. I knew that at that point in time his communication was declining, but he literally dressed me up and down in my uniform and he said it twice.”

Lyons said his father’s legacy lives on through those who knew him in Wilmington, and how he runs his own department in Braidwood.

“The advice he gave me was, when you’re the police, you use compassion and common sense. Not everything is black and white, just apply some common sense,” Lyons said. “I just think the connections he had with the community and being part of the community... people would come to our house and my dad wouldn’t turn them away. Just treat people good. Everybody is just trying to get by and live their life. What can we do to help it. That was my dad’s approach then and what we’re trying to do now.”