Ernest J. Leatherbury, chief of the Crisfield Police Department who was the highest-ranking black officer in the Maryland State Police when he retired from the force six years ago, died Friday at McCready Memorial Hospital in Crisfield after a heart attack. He was 55.
Chief Leatherbury collapsed during a late-afternoon meeting at the police station and was pronounced dead a short time later.
His death shocked and saddened colleagues on the small force, who remembered him as a role model and friend.
"It's been very emotional," said Lt. Gale Jones, who was with Chief Leatherbury when he collapsed. "He was not only an excellent leader, but also one of the best friends you could ever have.
"No matter what type of problem you had, you could go talk with him. He had the answer, knew what to say. He helped you through your problems, and before you would leave, he would make sure you were OK. Our problems were his problems."
The chief and his wife, Frances, lived in Princess Anne.
Chief Leatherbury attended public schools in Somerset County and was a graduate of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He joined the state police in 1972, and spent 23 of his 25 years on the force working on the Eastern Shore.
Starting as a trooper, he rose through the ranks to become commander of Eastern Shore operations and, as lieutenant colonel, supervisor of uniformed officers statewide.
John R. Somers, a retired state police officer who had known Chief Leatherbury since their training days, said his friend had an uncommon gift for being able to relate to anyone.
"He was capable of speaking to anyone in a very positive fashion," Mr. Somers said. "It didn't make any difference if the person was a farmer, a waterman or president. "He was highly motivated and very serious about being a role model in the public eye ... not only for black people but for everyone."
Chief Leatherbury became acting chief in Crisfield on his retirement from the state police and was named chief in 2000.
Lieutenant Jones, who joined the Crisfield force in 1977, said she knew and admired him during much of his career with the state police.
"I never thought he'd be my chief, and I'd be his lieutenant," she said. "I'm going to miss him."
Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.
In addition to his wife, survivors include three sons, Ernest J. Leatherbury Jr. of Salisbury, Eric Leatherbury of Princess Anne and Frank Leatherbury, who lives in Germany.