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Sheriff Tharp ready to transition to full-time role as Grandpa John

After nearly 50 years in law enforcement, Lucas County's sheriff is passing the baton to Mike Navarre.

TOLEDO, Ohio — A framed certificate in the basement of Sheriff John Tharp's home recognizes him as a Bronze Star recipient.

It had been in a drawer until a shocked friend told him that he should be proud of receiving the honor for saving lives as a combat medic in the jungles of Vietnam.

For more than 50 years, Tharp has served others - first as a medic, then as a Toledo Police department officer and detective, and for the last 22 years with the sheriff's department. For the last eight years, he has been the county's elected sheriff.

After this weekend, he will no longer be carrying a badge. He will transition from Sheriff Tharp to Grandpa John.

"I'm excited to spend more time with my family," he says.

Credit: WTOL
Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp reflects on 50 years in law enforcement as he prepares to retire.

The family continues to grow. He has sons in Seattle and Nashville and a daughter in Waterville. He now has six grandchildren, including a grandson who was born about six weeks ago. The 72-year-old has been married to his wife, Sam, for 39 years.

But he counts members of Toledo law enforcement and community groups as his extended family.

"I truly do not want to go. I hate to leave. There are a lot of good men in the Lucas County Sheriff's Office," he says. "And there have been so many organizations we've worked with, and helped in the schools. How could I not miss them?"

Credit: WTOL
Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp is seen in his boot camp picture.

As he talks, Sam digs around and pulls out Tharp's boot camp photo. He was powerfully built. She also lays out his Libbey High School yearbook. It's surprising to see him photographed in a three-point stance as a tackle for the Cowboys' football team.

The football field was where his law enforcement career took root.

"A group of us played football at Libbey High School and officers would come down and watch the practices. We always said, wouldn't it be great to have that job?"

Credit: WTOL
John Tharp, top center, was a tackle for the Libbey High School Cowboys football team, as seen in his yearbook. The football field was where his law enforcement career took root.

Tharp and five of his friends entered the academy at the same time in the early 1970s. In 1972, he joined TPD as a patrolman, working his way up to the vice squad, detective, and finally the gang squad, before retiring in 1997.

Former Sheriff James Telb brought Tharp over to the department as the director of public information in 1998 and he was later elected sheriff in 2012.

For the last eight years, Tharp has reimagined how community police should be, focusing on numerous initiatives to help residents, rather than just punishing them. A recent program is aimed at helping homeless veterans who land in the jail get back on their feet after being released. 

The most notable program, however, has been the nation's first Drug Addiction Resource Unit, which he started in 2014.

Credit: WTOL
After 50 years in law enforcement, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp is passing the baton to Mike Navarre. The sheriff is ready to embrace even more fully his title of "grandpa" in his retirement.

"I would walk through the jail at night and see someone in booking going through detox," he says. "One night, there was this really clean-cut guy (detoxing) who was kicking, and he kicked an officer's leg. He was so apologetic and said, 'I couldn't control my leg.' I knew something was going on, and no one was talking about the opioid epidemic."

The goal of the program is not to throw addicts into jail, but to get them and their families help. Other departments around the country have adopted similar programs after Tharp made a presentation at the White House during President Barack Obama's term.

 "Our oath is to protect and serve. But who do we serve? We serve a lot of people who are weak and in need of assistance, who need our help. I'm really most proud of being to do that."

Credit: WTOL
Oregon Police Chief Mike Navarre agrees with Gov. Mike DeWine that dismantling police forces is "absurd," but also agrees that reforms and additional training is needed.

On Monday, Mike Navarre will be sworn in as Lucas County sheriff. The former Toledo police chief has known Tharp for 40 years.

"He is a compassionate person who has a genuine concern for the people he works with and the community he serves. His tenure as sheriff will be extremely difficult to follow," Navarre says.

Tharp quickly dismisses any pressure that Navarre might feel.

Tharp said he'll still be visible around town, helping out when he can with many of the community groups with which he has built relationships. But his days in law enforcement are nearly done.

As far as a legacy, it's pretty simple.

"What I hope is said about me is what everyone in the community should think about. We need to be men and women for others," he says. "I hope I can be remembered as trying the best I could to help others. I think that would be a goal that many of us would want."

Credit: WTOL
For more than 50 years, John Tharp has served others - first as a medic, then as a Toledo Police department officer and detective, and for the last 22 years with the Lucas County Sheriff's Office. For the last eight years, he has been the county's elected sheriff.

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