WATSONVILLE—After 41 years on the job, Robert “Rolo” Leonardich drove away from the Watsonville Police Department for the last time Friday in his pristine 1978 Pontiac Firebird, the very car he drove to work on his first day on the job.

A festive farewell party, that included scores of retirees from the department, sent Leonardich packing. Words of respect and recognition of his many talents were shared along with a decorated sheet cake. 

“It’s a good town,” he offered to new and upcoming officers. “You have to remember, as a cop, that you work for the public; you are serving your community.” 

Police Chief David Honda said: “You have respect for this position, for this department and for this city. We appreciate you for all you have done. You’ve established a culture of professionalism, a culture of family and a culture of love for this city. I want to say congratulations on your second retirement.”

Leonardich came on board as a cadet at the start of the Cadet Program and worked as a reserve officer before working as a full-time officer. He also ran the shooting range as a firearms instructor for many years as well as the records division, among other duties. He retired the first time as a Master Officer.

“He was always the go-to person when it came to municipal codes; Rolo was especially good at that,” said Sgt. Mike Ridgway. “And all of us are very grateful for the number of years he worked at maintaining our fleet of vehicles. Rolo has been a huge resource for our community. He is a major fixture in Watsonville with a long family history here. We’ll now have to learn how to get by without him.”

In December 2008 Leonardich retired but by January he had walked back in the door and was hired as a reserve officer. For years he kept the department’s fleet of vehicles in top shape and told the crowd Friday it was a chief concern—to keep the officers in the safest vehicles possible.

“When I started we had three marked patrol cars,” he said. “We even had to drive the pound truck because it was the only available vehicle with a radio.”

Leonardich said he has seen several improvements at the department over the years, including at the shooting range, and in gear used by the officers.

Former Chief Terry Medina told the gathering that he had worked alongside Leonardich when they worked for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

“He was the only deputy to put over 100 miles on a patrol car on one shift,” Medina said. “There was never a complaint from him. Everything he did, it was 100 percent.”

In a brief video recording Capt. Tony Magdayao said, “I don’t know how we are going to make it without you. But somehow, we’ll have to manage.”

At the close of the ceremony, which was not shy of quips and jokes, Leonardich took time to introduce his wife, Janey, and his extended family.

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “I’m up at 5 in the morning anyway. I don’t know what it’s like to not go to work. Police work is more challenging now than it was before. But the equipment is better; there is more and better training, but it has changed a lot. I sure appreciate everybody showing up.”

Outside the department Leonardich and Janey jumped into his blue Firebird for the final drive home.

A lineup of patrol cars, a three-wheeler and motorcycles, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, then passed beneath a giant United States flag hung out by a crew from Auto Care Towing. The motorcade escorted Leonardich and Janey up Main Street, onto Freedom Boulevard and east on Green Valley Road.

“It seemed like only 41 years ago that I showed up,” Leonardich said.

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Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.