On a cold, blustery March afternoon, Donald Clinedinst and 15 other police recruits huff their way around the campus of Dundalk Community College. The course is 1 1/4 mile long.

Mr. Clinedinst finishes in 11 minutes, 58 seconds -- last in the pack -- but he's improving every day.

"He's a go-getter, that guy," says Sgt. Joseph Bangert, an instructor at the Baltimore County Police Academy.

That's about as much special attention as Mr. Clinedinst gets, and that's fine with him. He doesn't want any.

But he is special. At 51, he's the oldest police academy recruit in Baltimore County history. If he makes it through the demanding course -- as it appears he will -- officials say he may become the oldest rookie police officer in the United States.

Mr. Clinedinst, a graying widower with two teen-age children, is too focused on the daily academic and physical rigors of the academy to speculate on his place in history.

"I don't look too far ahead," he says. "There's enough to worry about today."

His journey to the police academy was certainly roundabout. Born and reared in Edgemere, Mr. Clinedinst graduated from Sparrows Point High School in 1961 and served four years in the Army. He was a military policeman who enjoyed his work, but looked elsewhere when he was discharged.

What he found was Machine Crafts Inc., a Rosedale machine shop, where his first job was counting rivets, he says. During 26 years, he worked his way up, doing virtually every job in the company until he eventually became its treasurer and operations manager.

He says he never thought about being a police officer. He was married and had two children. A career change didn't cross his mind.

But in 1987, his wife, Deanna, died of cancer. Then, in November 1992, he was laid off by the machine shop with little warning. Suddenly, he was a middle-aged man on the streets, looking for work. It wasn't easy. He says he believes many potential employers passed him over because of his age.

Early last year at an unemployment office, he saw a job posting for police officers. He pointed it out to a job counselor there.

"I said, 'I don't see an age limitation on this.' And the fellow said, 'Apply.' I said, 'Do you think that is a smart thing to do?' And the fellow said, 'Apply.' "

So he did, at the Cockeysville precinct, which is closest to his Hereford home. It was a lengthy application form that delved deep into his background. Then there was a written test and a lie-detector test. All along, he had no idea how well he was doing.

There was also a physical agility test -- whose usual subjects are half Mr. Clinedinst's age. It included running, lifting and dragging a 150-pound dummy, changing a car tire while being timed and other exercises.

To his surprise, he says now, "I enjoyed it. They worked us rather hard. [But] it was more like getting to go out and play. It was fun. It was different from the things I had been doing for the last 20 years."

"I didn't expect to pass," he adds. "But evidently I did."

Along the way, his children, Donald Bruce, 17, and Deanna Brooke, 14, encouraged his efforts to become a police officer. "They were tickled to death about it," he says.

Finally, just days before the class began in January, a letter arrived from the county police.

"The children and I opened it together. Donald Bruce opened it. I took it out and Brooke read it."

He made academy

He was in.

"We cheered," he said.

Since January, his focus has been on getting through the daily regimen of study, exercise and self-defense training with fellow recruits who often are young enough to be his children.

"We're behind him all the way," said his son, Donald, who noted that his father's workday begins at 5:30 a.m. and ends after 10 p.m.

While Mr. Clinedinst's intelligence and experience are his biggest assets, the physical and mental challenges along the way toward graduation in July are tough.

"It's definitely not a walk. It takes up all of my time. The minute you leave here, the first thing you do is you get ready for the next day," he says.

So far, so good.

His grades are good

"Gradewise, he's doing excellent,' says Officer Michael Akehurst, 35, Mr. Clinedinst's squad leader. "His advantage is wisdom. He can see further ahead, faster, and know what we want them to do."

"Physically, he's running average or below average, but by the end of the program, he'll be at an acceptable level."

"He works hard," says the squad leader, noting that while Mr. Clinedinst may be the slowest runner in his group, he has shown the most improvement. "If anybody's putting any extreme pressure on him, he's putting it on himself. He works harder than anyone else. That shows me he has that heart."

Quietly, the story of Mr. Clinedinst, a 51-year-old recruit, has spread through the county police force.

"He looks like he's in good shape," said Lt. Timothy Caslin, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4. "If the guy gets through the academy, that will be interesting. It might make history. It certainly will make history in this county."

He feels no bias

As the training progresses, Mr. Clinedinst says one thing he's found refreshing is that he isn't treated differently because of his age -- which is not how he felt when he was pounding the streets looking for a new job.

"There's no color and no age in the Police Department," he says.

Lt. Richard Koller, an academy instructor, said age was once a factor in considering applicants -- anyone over 35 was out. But federal law and court decisions since have forbidden age discrimination.

That doesn't mean the county lowered its standards to allow Mr. Clinedinst into the academy, says Officer Akehurst. And his performance, not his age, will determine if he succeeds.

"That's the integrity of the program," the squad leader says. "He gets treated no differently than anyone else.

"If they have the true heart to be a cop, they'll do well. You can see it in this program. And he has it."

Some longtime friends agree. While Mr. Clinedinst says he never considered a police career, they say he's regaled them for years with fond war stories about his Army days as an MP. They weren't surprised at all when he applied to the force.

"You can see by the way he handles himself," said Gary Snyder, a friend since grade school. "He looks like a police officer."

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