Two sheriffs, one hometown

Mendota natives John Booker, left, and John Simonton are sheriffs of neighboring counties in northern Illinois – Booker in Whiteside County and Simonton in Lee County. (Photo contributed)

Simonton and Booker serve as sheriff of two Illinois counties

MENDOTA – John Simonton and John Booker both grew up in Mendota and each became interested in law enforcement during their youth. Through the years, both Simonton and Booker pursued that interest and currently, they both hold the position of sheriff – Simonton in Lee County and Booker in Whiteside County.

Simonton, who graduated from Mendota High School in 1978, has served as Lee County Sheriff since 2014. His initial interest in law enforcement began at an early age when he saw a state trooper wearing a “professional looking uniform and Montana Peak (hat)” while on duty. His interest continued and he connected with local policemen in Mendota, did some ride-a-longs and pursued an educational path leaning toward a law enforcement career. After attending Illinois Valley Community College, he went on to Western Illinois University where he earned a Bachelor of Science.

Simonton’s initial police training was a 10-week course at the Illinois State Police Academy for his first law enforcement job with the Boone County Sheriff’s Office in 1982. Two years later, he was hired by the Illinois State Police and attended the academy for another 18 weeks.

In addition to his classroom training, Simonton credited two mentors from the rural Mendota area, Trooper Ron Siemers and Master Sergeant Jerry O’Sadnick (ISP District One), who were an important part of his education. “They both spent quite a bit of time teaching me about the profession and how to prepare for some of the incidents I was about to face,” Simonton said.

For Booker, a 1985 graduate of Mendota High School, his career in law enforcement took him to Whiteside County where he now serves as sheriff. As someone who likes excitement in his life, Booker was drawn to police work because he knew no two days would be the same and each day would be a challenge. He attended Illinois Valley Community College and St. Ambrose University before completing his police training at Lincoln Land Police Training Center in Springfield.

Like Simonton, Booker viewed Jerry O’Sadnick as a role model. “He was someone I always looked up to,” Booker said. “I always respected all the police in Mendota growing up as well.”

Although Simonton and Booker both currently serve as sheriff, each spent many years in law enforcement before being elected to that office. After two years with the Boone County Sheriff’s Office, Simonton was hired by the Illinois State Police in 1984 and worked in District One – Sterling. He was promoted to sergeant in 1989 in the patrol division.

During his time at District One, many districts began combining selected personnel to form tactical response teams, addressing high risk search and arrest warrants, hostage and barricade situations. “My interest was piqued while training with these teams, so much so that I stayed with this part-time unit as they progressed to area and regional teams (combining 3-5 districts),” Simonton said. “Eventually we became so busy that in 1998, we formed three full-time tactical response teams (north, central and south). I was promoted to Master Sergeant and was the team leader for the north team.”

A few years later, they formed a separate district (command) for the tactical teams named Special Operations Command (SOCOM). With this formation, they also developed the state’s first Weapons of Mass Destruction Team. This was one of the first WMD teams in the nation, comprised of several state and some federal partners. Simonton was promoted to lieutenant in charge of team operations and prior to his retirement in 2010, he eventually commanded SOCOM. With these promotions, Simonton worked in Springfield for about nine years and learned quickly that having a statewide command required an enormous amount of traveling.

Booker’s first job was as a security guard at Woodhaven Lakes in 1991. After a year, he was hired as a police officer by the City of Rock Falls and worked as a patrol officer and community policing officer. ln 1998, he was hired by the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Office and worked as a patrol deputy, patrol sergeant, detective, lieutenant and chief deputy prior to being elected sheriff. He is also commander of the county’s Swat Team.

Elected office

Simonton decided to run for sheriff because he believed he could make some positive changes within the department. With his various law enforcement and command experiences over the years, he felt well-prepared. Additionally, he wanted to bring his experience “back home” and have the chance to positively impact those working with him. But getting there was not so easy. “As far as campaigning, I was an extreme novice!” he admitted. “I had no idea what I was about to experience.” 

The best part of campaigning for Simonton was meeting and discussing issues with the public. “They are the people I would serve and I wanted to find out what they needed/wanted to make their communities safer,” he said. “I had a great team on the campaign committee who provided some very good advice and were not afraid to respectfully tell me when and what I should be doing.”

But in the end, it was family support that really helped him through. “This was not something a law enforcement officer, especially one that was generally out of the public eye, is used to,” Simonton said. “I learned a lot but there were some uneasy times during the campaign and having the family made all the difference in the world.”

Booker, on the other hand, set his sights on being sheriff right from the start. “When I came to Whiteside County approximately 28 years ago, I told everyone I was going to be sheriff someday,” he said. “Being sheriff is something I always dreamed of doing – being able to make changes to the county, which would help everyone. I also enjoy being involved with the youth and youth programs.”

There was a bump in the road, however. In 2010, Booker ran for sheriff and was defeated by Kelly Wilhelmi, who was sheriff for 10 years in Whiteside County. “Anyone who knows me knows I hate to lose, which made my decision to run again when Wilhelmi decided to retire very easy,” he recalled. “Running for any political office is very time consuming and I made a dedication to win the election, so for two years I campaigned every day.”

The work paid off and Booker was elected Whiteside County Sheriff in November 2018, after being endorsed both by Wilhelmi and another former sheriff, Roger Schipper.

Hometown memories

Both Simonton and Booker enjoyed growing up in Mendota and have many fond memories of their hometown. Simonton, whose parents and brother, Jeff, still live in Mendota, said the town was big enough to offer the essentials and small enough to know many of the people that lived there. “Friends and family are the best memories,” he said. “Of course, playing football on Friday evenings (especially vs. LaSalle-Peru), when over half the town attended, is something I will never forget.”

Many of Booker’s early memories also involve playing sports – football, basketball and track in high school and college football at IVCC and St. Ambrose – as well as playing softball in Mendota during the summer. Although his family is no longer in Mendota, they still live nearby – his mother, Virginia Joerger lives in Peru; brother, Bill (Manuela) in LaSalle; and sisters, Linda (Steve) Dinges in Oglesby, and Laura (Roger) Willoughby in Granville.

The role of sheriff

Even in less populated counties, serving as sheriff can be a very high-stress job. Many responsibilities fall to the sheriff including daily law enforcement (patrol and investigative); the jail; dispatch; court security and maintenance; and preparing the budget for county board approval. Additionally, sheriffs often serve on various law enforcement focused committees and boards.

But both Simonton and Booker agree that the job is also very fulfilling. For Simonton, there have been many high points: hearing community members talk about the positive changes in the department, listening to deputies and correctional officers discuss new technology and equipment the department has acquired, updating the sheriff’s office to be more responsive to the needs of the public, solving major and minor crimes with speed and efficiency, being a co-founder of Safe Passage (domestic violence agency/rape crisis center), providing a way for those afflicted with drug addiction to get treatment, helping find ways to help those afflicted with mental illness and to provide support and treatment, and knowing that these efforts reduce recidivism and lessen the burden to taxpayers. 

The most rewarding part of the job for Booker involves the youth in his county. “Without a doubt, interacting with the youth is by far the most fulfilling,” he said. “I enjoyed coaching football, baseball and softball over the years. I also enjoy walking into the store and running into someone, even if I arrested them in the past, and they say hello and most of the time say ‘thank you’ to me for what I did for them.”

In general, both sheriffs said the most demanding part of their job is time management and the effects of the job on family. Booker and his wife, Kaci Kay, have two children, Kaylyn and Brandyn, and two grandchildren, Ian and Kora. Although he considers having grandchildren one of the “greatest things in life,” Booker acknowledged that the long hours it takes to do a good job sometimes means less time to spend with his family.

A demanding but worthwhile career

Despite the difficulties, Simonton said he would definitely recommend a law enforcement career to young people. “I love this career, even after 37 years in the business,” he said. “I like the challenges and enjoy the variety every day.”

But Simonton cautioned that law enforcement is a career that requires a 24/7 approach. “We never close the doors and we must be responsive to the needs of the public with care and compassion,” he said. “We appreciate the support of the public but do not take it for granted. I am thankful that in this area we have that support.” 

He also noted that despite all of the modern technology available today, the No. 1 crime solving tool is simply good communication skills. “We receive more and more tips from the public because our deputies develop relationships with community members and in some cases, with defendants. You have to treat people how you wish to be treated and you have to be all in – this is not a job, it is an honorable career. You have to train and prepare.”

Similarly, Booker said he believes in always treating people fairly and with respect. “I believe being in law enforcement is much more than just a job, it is a complete life commitment,” he emphasized. “I have 28 years so far and I am looking to work many more.”

For anyone seriously interested in law enforcement, Simonton shared some advice: “You will do well only if you listen, learn and critically evaluate yourself each day and after each incident.”

He also referred back to a slogan from his days at the academy: If you choose law enforcement, you lose the right to be unfit. “You have to be mentally, physically and emotionally prepared for this career and all the good and bad it offers. It will wear on you; therefore, you have to take care of yourself,” he said. “The community is counting on us.”

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