Growing up in Columbus and being neighbors with then-Columbus Police Chief Wesley Baxa, it would have been hard for Tom Dion to not get to know the man.
Baxa’s wife used to babysit Dion and his twin brother when they were young kids, so he often came across Baxa.
“I grew up with him and admired him for what he did – the job he did and the way he carried himself,” Dion said of the late Baxa, who served as CPD’s chief from the early 1970s through the late 1980s. “He just impressed me as a standout man, a good man. He was just nice, approachable. The badge never changed him.”
Dion said he had another Columbus Police Department officer who lived on his street and had chances to meet Platte County Sheriff’s and Nebraska State Patrol officials through his dad, who was superintendent for the Nebraska Department of Roads back in the day.
In some ways, those officers inspired him. They showed him how those in law enforcement could do their jobs well and be great members of the community. That philosophy is something Dion lives by and plans to continue when he takes over as neighboring Butler County’s sheriff in January after being elected to the position in the general election earlier this month.
It will be a homecoming for Dion, who spent 16-and-a-half years with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office starting in 2000 and reached the rank of sergeant. But things got rough for him personally. First, in 2014, the Dions lost their second-oldest daughter, 26-year-old Melissa, to cystic fibrosis, a defective gene causes a thick, sticky buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs. Then, in August 2015, his close friend and then-Butler County Sheriff Mark Hecker died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
“It was a tough year that year,” Dion said, noting he decided to step away from the sheriff’s office in January 2016 because of those losses and the death of his mother in 2015. “Mark was a big influence. He taught me everything – from just learning the law, learning the proper way to carry out law enforcement and just to have strong character … I think the time away helped. Time does heal some wounds.”
The 1981 Columbus High School graduate and Democrat said he was eager to move forward.
“I’m very good, very excited, relieved that it’s over and happy with the turnout,” Dion said. “I believe it says a lot about my character that you can cross party lines and people will vote for the candidate they feel is most worthy of the position.”
Dion, who has worked at the power plant in David City since March 2016, didn’t do anything major on election night. Instead, he said, his family had a few relatives over to host a nice get-together as results came in. The next day, he was back at work helping out with a maintenance project at the power plant.
“My phone was ringing nonstop,” Dion said, with a laugh. “I tried to answer as many calls as possible. People were calling to congratulate me and I appreciated that.”
Among the many people who called Dion was Humphrey Police Chief Anthony Miller, who noted Dion started helping his department earlier this year. He said Butler County is getting a special individual.
“He’s willing to go the extra mile. I think he’ll do a fantastic job,” Miller said. “He’s pretty approachable, stops to talk with people. He’s really likable and has done a good job for me. I think he’ll do a good job down there because he cares about the job, doing it the right way and he cares about the people who he is serving.”
Although Dion has a couple of months before he takes the reins, he is undoubtedly prepared. Dion said getting to know his deputies is one of his biggest priorities moving forward. Then it will be about getting the community more familiar with the department.
“I’m going to make sure we go to more events and get out and meet the people in all of the different towns. I hate to say the word, but old school,” Dion said, adding his appreciation to Butler County residents for believing in him and taking the time out of their schedules to vote. “We’ve got to have that old-school mentality of getting out and talking with people Instead of just being that law enforcement officer driving by. I want to get the department up back to where it needs to be.”
The U.S. Army veteran, who served from 1982-1988, has praise for Columbus before mentioning his excitement about his new job.
“I loved it. Columbus was a great place to grow up as a kid,” he said. “But never in my wildest dreams (as a kid) did I think that this would happen. My wife was born on a farm in Butler County, and my late father-in-law was born and raised in Butler County until they moved to Columbus in 1971. So I think he would be proud to have a son-in-law who is sheriff of Butler County.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.