Part 2 in a 3-part series
SHIRLEY -- Police Chief J. Gregory Massak's contract was up for renewal this year and negotiations over a new one couldn't find common ground with selectmen, he said. Though he hadn't planned to retire, it became his chosen course.
Although he understands the financial difficulties the town is in right now, with a $300,000 budget deficit forcing municipal belt-tightening and staff reductions, the two-percent raise he was offered was not enough, he said, among other issues.
"It's tough for everybody," Massak said. "People don't have disposable income to pay more taxes."
Citing another challenging couple of years ahead, he said it's likely his successor will be asked to wear two hats. Although he has repeatedly sought to hire another patrol officer and although the selectmen support the idea, the town simply doesn't have to the money, Massak said.
So he had continued doing both jobs, as he has done since taking over from former Shirley Police Chief Paul Thibodeau, who retired after 22 years and is enjoying a second career now, with flexible hours and time to spend with family. "He drops in every now and then," Massak said of his former boss, and when the subject of retiring came up, Thibodeau's advice was, "Don't hesitate ... go."
All things considered, Massak decided to do just that. "I've done what I can possibly do," he said. "I can retire and do well."
But public service and police work are his professional calling, the kind of work he always wanted and was trained to do, Massak said, and he'd welcome the opportunity to serve as an interim police chief in another community. He hasn't ruled out pursing other public-safety or law enforcement-related options, either, in teaching or on the lecture circuit. And he's still a part-time firefighter in his hometown of Lunenburg.
He plans to deliver an "active shooter" lecture to a group of occupational health nurses soon, he said, citing an addition to his post-retirement resume. The nurses work at big manufacturing plants, hospitals or health-care facilities. "We talk about where to go, what to do" if the facility doesn't have an emergency plan for such incidents. It could be the start of something, he said. "We'll see how I do."
Massak recalled words of wisdom from an instructor at the police academy he graduated from in Topsfield, which was run by state troopers. The career the students had chosen offered a front row seat at the "best show on earth and the worst show on earth," the instructor said.
Massak said the remark shows the quirky sense of humor police officers tend to develop, given the wide range of situations they encounter, from comic to tragic. "You laugh, you cry, it's the nature of the beast," he said.
Citing success stories in that graduating group, Massak said one of his classmates recently retired as Beverly's police chief, while others went on to become police captains and sergeants, one of them in Lowell.
Massak started his career in Lunenburg as a part-time police officer and in December1984 started in Shirley, where he was hired full time in July, 1995. He progressed to the rank of sergeant and became a lieutenant in 2003. He was appointed police chief in 2009.
"It's been interesting," he said of his years on the job. As an EMT and firefighter as well as a police officer, he's had many memorable experiences, he said, including a stint as a private ambulance driver in Worcester, a busy city route with "lots of calls," he said.
But small towns have their share of emergency calls, too.
In Shirley, he once pulled two people out of the second floor of an Ayer Road home in the middle of the night after a woodstove pipe started a fire in the house. He was working the midnight shift. Family members were in the back yard, trying to douse the blaze with a garden hose. The couple upstairs didn't even know there was a fire, Massak said.
In 1997 he helped save the life of a retired border patrol officer who lived on Lancaster Road.
The call came while he was on foot patrol in the village. A man at the post office had a "heart issue." He found the man "hanging out of his car," Massak said. "He was blue."
Massak performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR and revived the man. When the ambulance arrived, he was breathing again. "Everyone did a good job," Massak said, and the man survived. "He was home for Christmas," he said.
It was one of his "saves," four in 35 years. But some lifesaving attempts failed, despite everyone's best efforts.
One harrowing loss was that of a young boy who fell into Lake Shirley near the dam and drowned. It was at least 15 years ago. Massak had a child about the same age at the time. "We hoped he might survive..." because the water was so cold, he said. But he did not.
Police officers are often first responders. They also face danger and sometimes get shot.
As a police officer in Lunenburg, he was shot at but not hit by a "distraught" man in a domestic incident, he said. In Shirley, a man who had barricaded himself in his trailer home on Clark Road shot at police as they attempted to get him out. They did, and nobody was hurt, but there were some tense, even scary moments during the standoff.