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'End of an era' as Laurel spokesman James Collins retires after 38 years

James Collins walked into work at Laurel Automotive on Main Street one day last month, returning to the same job he had 41 years ago, though not the same job he had held since Richard Nixon was president.

For nearly 38 years, Collins had a career he loved with the Laurel Police Department and, later, the city government, a career from which he recently retired.

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Collins — call him Jim or Jimmy, for that's how everyone has always known him — was a Vietnam veteran in his early 20s when he joined the Police Department, first as a dispatcher, then as the chief of communications and later as a division supervisor, continuing on for decades as the department's public information officer.

That first day was June 24, 1974, he says, the date coming with ease. The second date is also ready in his mind but harder for him to take: March 31, 2012, his last day working as a spokesman both for the Police Department and the city government.

"I didn't want to retire," said Collins, a 62-year-old longtime Laurel resident, sitting in the department's Fifth Street headquarters on April 26, occasionally pausing the conversation to share a warm hello with another familiar face.

"This is the first time I've been back in the building since I left," he said. "I'm missing it."

But his retirement account had maxed out seven years ago. His money started going into an investment account instead, a program that meant he had to leave his job earlier this year.

"I classify it as an end of an era," said Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin, who was actually hired by Collins as a dispatcher 26 years ago before working his way up through the ranks. Other officers in the department have followed a similar path.

"There is nobody who will ever replace Jimmy Collins. Nobody will ever fill Jimmy Collins' shoes," McLaughlin said. "The relationships that he had, the rapport that he had, the reputation that he had — he was very, very well known within the media circle, and I think he was very respected. He was very honest, he would not beat around the bush, and he was very thorough."

Collins sought to be in law enforcement, or perhaps firefighting, from his youth. He was working delivering auto parts in February 1970, however, when he was drafted into military service in the middle of the war in Vietnam. He was sent overseas in July 1970 to work as a cook.

"I got to Vietnam and thought I was safe, and they said they didn't need any cooks," Collins said. "I volunteered with a group to inspect fire support bases. That was an enjoyable time, too. People are like, 'You're in a war,' but there was a reason for doing that. Leaving there, I had mixed emotions because I knew I wouldn't see my buddies anymore."

He did see combat. Though, he didn't want to talk about it.

While in Vietnam, he wrote to the Laurel Police Department asking how to join. Collins was hired a few years after returning to the United States.

He still sought to become a police officer, but fatherhood left him more focused on family than on pursuing that career path.

He had also fallen in love with his job.

"I was honest with the media," he said. "Instead of saying 'no comment,' I would explain why I couldn't release something. The relationship grew and grew. Today, I have a number of friends in Laurel, the city, the Police Department, in the media."

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Of course, growing up in Laurel meant some of his friends got arrested at times.

"I'll never forget them calling my name out from the jail cell," Collins said. "And I'm like, 'There's nothing I can do for you. You messed up.' "

His role brought him to crime scenes, where he saw all sides of the calls: the sadness of the victims and their families, the police response and the investigations that either close a case or end with the case unsolved.

Collins recalls details as if he were speaking with a reporter when the crime first happened. There was the case of a young woman who disappeared on what was to be her last day working at a local hospital. The woman planned to move the next day to Texas, but she never made it to work. Her vehicle was found days later, blood throughout its interior.

"That one's stuck in my mind," he said. "You don't ever want to get immune to seeing or smelling, but to an extent you do. ... The thing that always bothered me was I knew that person, whether it was a homicide, accidental death, accident, natural causes — that's somebody's relative, somebody's friend.

"I always thought in my mind, 'Someone's going to be sad when they hear this. I've got to do the best I can for them. I want to release as much information, but I've always got to protect the evidence and the victim."

There are other, far more lighthearted, moments, too.

There was the 2 a.m. phone call about a person who had barricaded himself from police and refused to come out. Collins rose from bed and walked out to his car to head to the scene.

"I turn around and look, and there's 15 police cars sitting behind my car," he said. "And they say, 'It's here.' "

Police once responded to a convenience store for a burglary. It had just snowed, and they saw footprints coming from the back door, the only set of footprints nearby. Officers followed them down several streets, ending up at the intersection of Main Street and Route 1, where the man was standing.

"They just walked up and put the cuffs on him," Collins said. "He said, 'How'd you catch me?' "

Or there was the Laurel Police officer who spotted a prisoner who had escaped from Howard County. The officer jumped out of his car to chase after him.

"The problem was he didn't put his car in park," Collins said. "And his cruiser passed him up."

That same officer also once got out of his vehicle to investigate a suspicious person. That suspect ended up stealing his police cruiser, Collins said.

"There's a lot of comical things. Some of them are serious," he said. "But we've had a good time, and the Police Department's been my heart and soul. Even when they moved me to City Hall, I always had to have that connection to the Police Department."

Collins added a role as public information officer for the city government in 2002. He still returned to the department's headquarters each day.

No longer.

"I can come here whenever I want to. It's hard to come back," he said. "I was trying to get it out of my system."

Shortly after Collins retired from the city, Laurel Automotive called him and asked if he wanted to return to work there. Always a people person, he said he'd come back but only if he could do deliveries again as he had in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He still stays busy beyond that part-time job, working security for a local apartment complex; being president of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, which he has been with in several capacities for 40 years; heading his homeowners association; riding his motorcycle; and spending time with his family, including his wife of 23 years, Marlene, and their combined six children who have brought them 14 grandchildren and one great-grandson.

And while Collins has been out of the city government for barely a month, he's already considering a return, perhaps a run for City Council.

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"You want to help people," he said. "I can't do it sitting at home, and I can't do it riding my Harley."

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