Kenny Chism never said “rapscallion” or “varmint” during a recent interview, but it wouldn’t have been out of character.
Wearing jeans and boots and a leather belt with silver etchings and a large buckle, you half-expect his office at the Garden Grove PD to include a spittoon.
But it is filled with such items as a cowboy calendar, a sketch of his idol John Wayne (he met him once; we’ll get to that in a moment) and a plaque showing an illustrated backside of a pig.
Chism is straight out of central casting — the poker-playing cowhand in a shoot-‘em-up Western flick.
But make no mistake: Chism, a genial fixture at the Garden Grove PD with an aw-shucks demeanor, has a tough-as-nails past as a Vietnam vet.
And he’s one of the last guys you want to do official business with at the police station.
That’s because Chism, a youthful 65 with the tanned and rugged skin of someone who knows his way around a stable, runs the PD’s jail.
If you, as a civilian, engage with Chism in some official capacity at the PD — well, partner, you done did something wrong.
Chism’s official title at the GGPD is Jail-Fleet Coordinator, which means that in addition to the pokey, he’s in charge of keeping the PD vehicles humming.
Not one to toot his horn, Chism appears to want to shrink beneath a huge Stetson rather than be interviewed.
But he reckons he’ll play the hand he’s been dealt.
“There’s always something to look forward to every day,” Chism says of his job.
“Just me waking up is something to celebrate. And if no one throws dirt in my face, well, I feel I had a pretty good day.”
Chism grew up in Benton, Ark., located between Little Rock and Hot Springs, one of five children to a father who was a heavy equipment operator and a World War II combat veteran who served in the 307 Infantry Regiment. His mother was a licensed vocational nurse. The family’s ancestors are dairy farmers in Scotland.
In 1968, shortly before he graduated from high school, Chism received a draft notice. But he had to re-register for the draft in California after his parents, seeking better opportunities, relocated the family to Westminster.
Chism tried to enlist in the Marine Corps — “You know,” he explains, “the whole mom-and-apple-pie thing” — but a heart murmur disqualified him medically.
He soon found himself taking a bus, at age 18, to what is now Eddie West Field in Santa Ana to be drafted into the U.S. Army.
Chism went through basic and advanced infantry training at Fort Ord, the since-shuttered Army post on Monterey Bay.
And then, during an 8½-month period over 1969-’70, Chism served during the Vietnam War. He served with the 11th Armored Calvary and 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division.
Armed with only a .45 caliber pistol, a bayonet and a flashlight, Chism was a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam — a soldier tasked with walking into dark spaces to see if enemy troops were inside.
Conducting underground search-and-destroy missions while facing the prospect of deadly booby traps and enemy fire was harrowing, and Chism saw a lot. By the time he left the Army he had earned his Basic Jump Wings (a parachutist badge), a Combat Infantry Badge, a Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
Chism doesn’t dwell on his Vietnam War experience in detail, but it served him well when he later decided to become a cop.
Chism’s best friend, a former Marine, encouraged him to go to college.
After taking classes at Cypress Junior College and Fullerton JC, Chism became interested in law enforcement.
His best friend bet him $100 he couldn’t become a cop because he felt Chism, at 5 feet 6 inches, was too short.
Chism proved him wrong.
He went through the academy and in December 1975, Chism got hired by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He started working at the agency in February 1976. Among his many assignments at the OCSD was working as a jailer for 3½ years.
“I had fun doing that,” Chism recalls. “It’s all what you make of it.”
As a deputy, Chism spent six years on the off-road enforcement team, patrolling Orange County’s backcountry on a dirt bike, and was a member of the SWAT team for more than a decade.
He wore his hair long while working undercover in the late ’70s.
For nearly his entire career at the OCSD, Chism served on the agency’s mounted unit, a secondary assignment to his regular duties.
Chism retired from the OCSD after a 30-year career.
At his retirement party, in 2005, he collected the $100 from his friend who said he was too short to make it as a cop.
In 2007, Chism was recruited by the Garden Grove PD to serve on the mounted unit as a master reserve officer, a position for retired cops that limits their hours to 960 per year.
In June 2014, Chism replaced longtime GGPD jail operator Gary Matten.
The Garden Grove City Jail, located inside PD headquarters on Acacia Parkway, contracts out with a private company, the GEO Group Inc., to hire jailers who run the facility, which has three cells and room for 17 inmates who are housed there temporarily.
Chism manages those jailers and reports to Lt. Chris Lawton.
“This is a busy town,” Chism says. “I admire the officers here. They don’t mess around. They do their jobs and make the city proud.”
Chism has been married for 33 years.
He and his wife, Peggy, who works for the Corona-Norco Unified School District, have a married daughter, Lacy Jensen, 31, a special education teacher, and a married son, Toby, 29, a member of the Air Force Special Operations Command who has been deployed three times.
The Chisms have two grandchildren, Georgia Mae Jensen and Wyatt Kenneth Chism.
Oh, and about meeting John Wayne.
Chism was patrolling with OCSD deputies in Newport Harbor in the late 1970s when they spotted the Hollywood legend reading a newspaper in his bathrobe on his patio.
The deputies asked for permission to dock.
The Duke obliged.
Then ailing (Wayne died of cancer, at age 72, in 1979), the Duke then used his fluent Spanish to dispatch a maid to serve the deputies iced tea.
The deputies and Wayne visited for about 30 minutes.
“He was a very nice man,” Chism said of that encounter — one he’ll cherish forever.
If he ever decides to leave the GGPD, Chism will tend to his horses on his ranch property and enjoy spending time with his family.
He also will let his hair grow long. Prior to going into law enforcement, it flowed down to his waist, a la Willie Nelson.
Says Chism with a laugh: “I have a phobia when it comes to getting haircuts.”
But not much else, including walking into dark tunnels.