CEDAR CITY — For 16 years, Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower has started his work day with the words “Work hard, stay humble” posted on a plaque that hung on his office door. For him, it’s a motto he has always lived his life by.
“He’s not in law enforcement for himself,” said Buck Naegle, who serves on the Iron County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue and has known Gower his entire life. “He’s never allowed himself to be above anything. During the summer months when there’s a threat of rain, it’s Sheriff Gower who is the first out at the yard to start filling sandbags for the residents. He’s humble, that’s the one word I would use to describe him.”
It’s not just the door hanging reminding Gower to maintain his humility that he has included as part of his office decor; he also has plaques and pictures that reflect his love of country and his commitment to uphold the oath he took when sworn in as a peace officer 26 years ago.
On one wall hangs a framed copy of the Constitution, a constant reminder of the promise he made to the people of Iron County to protect their civil liberties. Next to it hangs a painting of a soldier in prayer on the battlefield with his men surrounding him, an image that mirrored some of Gower’s most private moments with his deputies during times of potential danger.
On the opposite wall hangs the Pledge of Allegiance with a plaque next to it that includes a quote by President Ronald Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same.” And on Gower’s filing cabinet is a folded retired flag – all a display of the sheriff’s American pride.
But on Jan. 2, 2019, the walls that once hung his plaques and awards affirming his courage and leadership will be bare. The shelves that now display thank-you cards from children who have toured the building and the souvenirs given to him by supporters will be empty and his desk void of the paperwork, notebooks and a 50-plus coin collection gathered by various law enforcement agencies throughout the years.
With no aspirations to be a career politician, Gower made the decision not to run for reelection this year, feeling it was time to hand the office over to someone with “fresh eyes.”
“I am comfortable here. Everyday I love coming to work, but I felt like maybe that was a disservice to the public because this is a public office elected by the people,” he said. “People deserve change. They deserve to have another set of eyes, another perspective. I believe if you stay in a position too long the public will want change, so I’m giving them the opportunity to explore another sheriff for the county and experience his leadership.”
In two weeks at noon, Gower will make his last call to dispatch, ending his final shift with the Iron County Sheriff’s Office. But it won’t be easy.
He has been an employee of the sheriff’s office since 1993 when he first hired on as a deputy after receiving his peace officer certification. Gower went on to serve as a task force agent, detective and later the sheriff in 2003 when he was initially appointed to fill the position after the former administrator was forced to leave office early.
“It’s been a great ride,” Gower said, his voice cracking with emotion as he reflected on the relationships he’s forged with his deputies that he will be leaving behind. “This has been part of my family for almost 26 years, and leaving them behind is going to be tough.”
The feelings aren’t one-sided either. During Gower’s retirement party Friday, many of his deputies struggled to hold back the tears as they knew it wouldn’t be long before they had to say goodbye.
For Lt. Del Schlosser, who has served with Gower for more than 20 years, the thought of not having him just around the corner from his office to holler at during the day is hard to fathom.
“It’s going to be tough for awhile,” Schlosser said. “We’ve served for a long time together, and losing him is going to take me some time to get used to.”
Besides his belongings, Gower is retiring with a host of memories, and in 26 years there’s plenty of time to make some real great ones that bring a lot of laughter and joy.
One of the moments Gower still laughs about was a call he received one night about his deputies responding to a scene with what had been reported as a dead body. Dressed and in the truck ready to roll out for assistance, he received a second call, this time his guys were laughing uncontrollably.
It took about five minutes before the crew was able to gather themselves enough to tell the sheriff the man they had presumed dead was not.
“I had just barely taken over as sheriff, and the deputies called to tell me about the situation and invited me out,” Gower said. “Then, just as I’m getting to pull out of my driveway, they call me and all I can hear is these guys just cracking up, and they tell me that the guy isn’t dead but was passed out after drinking a little too much alcohol. The deputy that called it was relatively new so the deputies are out there and they’ve got all their equipment and taking photos and all of a sudden this guy that’s supposedly dead sits up and says, ‘What are you doing here?’ Everybody was screaming and yelling and thinking the dead had come back to life. It was hilarious. Everybody thought that guy was deceased.”
Gower said the most rewarding part of the job by far has been the times he’s been able to help “make someone’s bad day, a good day.” It is the small things that were important to him, like not writing someone a ticket – which he didn’t do a lot – or bringing fuel to someone who ran out of gas. He was also known to often go out of his way to check on a victim or someone who had lost a loved one to just make sure they were OK.
This side of Gower that can laugh at innocent and harmless mistakes – even his own – or get his hands dirty by changing someone’s tire while dressed up in uniform is what many who know him refer to as his “human side,” something others so often found endearing and admirable.
“He’s very human,” Naegle said. “There has to be a win-win situation when he’s dealing with issues. He’s fair and cares about the people he serves. He also cares about animals, something a lot of people don’t know about him.”
Still, while there is a lot for Gower to smile about, there are memories he retains that will forever haunt him – specifically the ones involving the abuse and the death of children. Those bring tears to his eyes even to this day and can keep him up at night remembering them.
“I struggle with the crimes involving children,” Gower said, his voice breaking as he fought back the tears. “They weigh heavy on my mind, and there are ones that still get me.”
Elections also took a toll on Gower and his wife, Traci. They agree the political warfare waged against the sheriff at times was taxing and won’t be missed as they move in to this next chapter of their lives.
“I won’t miss the elections,” Traci Gower said. “People don’t realize how taxing elections are for the person and their family. It was hard watching have to go through a year of attacks because elections are for a year.”
Leadership, however, came easier. Gower was never a sheriff who only dealt with the administration side of things, dictating and directing his deputies from his desk. For him, it was always hands on and serving alongside his people.
When the deputies were required to do something, Gower held himself to the same standards. He never expected anything from anyone he himself wasn’t willing to do, as evidenced by his commitment to finish a training mandated for those serving on the SWAT team. Often referred to as “hell week,” the program consists of 100 hours of difficult exercises, workouts and drills all done within five days, leaving only about three to four hours in every given 24-hour period for sleep.
Gower finished the training in 2014, receiving the Officer of the Year award that same year from the Utah Peace Officers Association, in part because he is the only sheriff in the state to have ever have attended the training.
“He’s unique in that he has always been out in the field serving alongside us, boots on the ground,” Schlosser said. “He has never been afraid or backed down from something because he was afraid or because he was the sheriff and had deputies who would take care of it. He never asked of anyone what he wasn’t willing to do.”
His leadership has also been apparent in how far he has taken the department during his tenure as sheriff.
“When he first came on, we were still driving sedans,” Schlosser said. “We didn’t even have a camera that we could take photos with at a crime scene. We had to borrow one from the Cedar City Police Department. We didn’t have what we needed to do our job. Today we do and he has taken the department to a whole new level in equipment, gear and training. He really has brought us into the 21st century.”
Gower admits he is proud of how far the sheriff’s office has come under his direction, but he doesn’t take full credit. Instead, he points to his team as being responsible for the changes.
“It wasn’t just me. It’s all because there’s good people who work here, and we work as a team,” Gower said. “I have had an fantastic and amazing team. I couldn’t have done anything without them.”
Integrity has also been something Gower has maintained while holding the highest elected office in the county, a word often used by his deputies and others to describe him. Tracie Gower said she has never questioned this even after 20 years of marriage.
“I never had to wonder when I would hear things or when people would tell me something that he had supposedly done that called into question his integrity,” Traci Gower said. “It just never crossed my mind. I never doubted him because I have always known that he has been consistent in his integrity and he is not going to do anything that puts that in jeopardy.”
While Gower is leaving the Sheriff’s Office, he isn’t planning on retiring anytime soon, as he just recently accepted a job as a police officer with the Colorado City Marshal’s Office in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
“I am really excited to be a part of that department,” Gower said. “There’s a lot of changes being made out there, and I am really looking forward to being a part of that.”
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.