Colleagues remember former Sheriff Proper

Sheriff Paul Proper behind his desk at the Sheriff’s Office. Photo contributed

COPAKE—He will always be remembered as sheriff.

Former Columbia County Sheriff Paul J. Proper, Sr., 88, died at home the evening of Thursday, December 20.

He was a family man, a veteran, a fireman, a rescue squad member, a fair board director, sportsman, a truck driver and a lawman. His friends and colleagues describe him as loyal, fair-minded, kind-hearted, a devoted public servant and ahead of his time.

In July 1961 he was hired as the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department’s first full-time, county-wide road patrol deputy. In January 1965 he advanced to become the department’s first and only investigator.

After a brief departure from the Sheriff’s Department in 1968, the future sheriff returned in 1972, when he was appointed to serve as undersheriff by then Sheriff Frank Appleton. When Sheriff Appleton retired in 1976, then Governor Hugh Carey appointed a replacement, Harold Horton, a Democrat, and then Undersheriff Proper, a Republican, was out.

Former sheriff, now Coroner James Bertram told The Columbia Paper this week, he drove his friend Paul home that day and told him he could have a part-time job as a patrolman with the Chatham Police Department, where Mr. Bertram served as chief.

In the next election for sheriff, November 1976, Mr. Proper won handily over Mr. Horton and began serving in January 1977 with Mr. Bertram as his undersheriff.

Once elected, Sheriff Proper was not influenced by political party but treated everyone the same, taking the time to talk to them and get to know them, said Coroner Bertram.

The sheriff worked half days—12-hours-long. He was also a fireman and could be found responding to fires at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. He was a sheriff, a family man, a sportsman and my friend from way back,” said the coroner.

Former longtime Coroner Angelo Nero said by phone this week that he and Sheriff Proper ran for election at the same time in 1976. He said the sheriff had an “outstanding way with people” and was able to talk with anyone. “He was not the kind of sheriff who just threw people in jail,” said Mr. Nero, “He also helped them.”

In a press release announcing “with great sadness” Sheriff Proper’s passing, current Sheriff David Barlett said, “Sheriff Proper hired me in 1984 and took the chance on a young man becoming a police officer. Through my 34-year career, I have strived to follow in his footsteps. He was a man of honor, integrity and always served his community.

Sheriff Proper will be dearly missed in Columbia County and in the law-enforcement family. Keep Marge [Mrs. Proper] and the rest of the Proper family in your thoughts and prayers,” Sheriff Bartlett concluded.

Sheriff Proper held the office of president for the New York State Sheriffs Association in 1988. In addition, he was a life-time member of the Copake Fire Company for 69 years.

In all, Sheriff Proper spent 25+ years in law enforcement and retired as chief law enforcement officer of Columbia County at the end of 1989 due to health reasons after leading the department for 13 years.

Twelve years later, in 2001, Sheriff Proper responded to the call to come out of retirement. Following the retirement of Sheriff Bertram in December 2000, his undersheriff, Warren Dorsch took the reins as sheriff, but resigned in April 2001.

When Governor George Pataki declined to appoint a replacement, the task fell to Senior Columbia County Judge John Leaman, who appointed Sheriff Proper to serve until a new sheriff could be elected in November.

Sheriff Proper came aboard with retired Sheriff’s Office Captain Walter Shook as his undersheriff. Mr. Shook won election to the sheriff’s post later that year.

At the time, Judge Leaman said in a statement about his choice that appeared in The Independent newspaper April 24, 2001, “There is one name which is synonymous in the minds of many with the office of sheriff, an identification which the passage of time has not dimmed… no one symbolizes more clearly the best traditions of the sheriff’s department than Paul Proper and no one is better able at this time to provide effective leadership for the department than he is.”

In an email response for comment this week former Sheriff David Harrison, Jr., told The Columbia Paper, “Sheriff Proper hired me in 1984 and I was the Law Enforcement Captain when he was re-appointed in 2001.”

Sheriff Proper and other sheriffs were working to modernize sheriffs’ offices statewide, said Mr. Harrison.

Sheriff Proper “was very involved in the New York State Sheriffs’ Association and made the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office a civil service agency before the law required it. During his tenure, he met the standards for and achieved Sheriff’s Office Accreditation by the NYS Sheriffs’ Association… [making] for a more professional office.

Sheriff Proper was a person before his time in law enforcement. He knew that in order to effectively battle crime, community involvement and trust was important. By his own personality and leadership style, he practiced community policing before it became accepted nationwide as an important part of public safety,” wrote the former sheriff.

In a recent email statement, Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka called Sheriff Proper, “One of the greatest and nicest men in Columbia County history.

Although recognized throughout the county as a truly great man, he was also a truly humble man,” said the district attorney, remembering events that demonstrated these characteristics.

The DA wrote that when newsman Lance Wheeler interviewed the sheriff about the Wiley Gates murders in 1986, “in what soon came to indelibly demonstrate to many the horror of that scene…. Sheriff Proper, although long involved in law enforcement, was visibly shaken as he described it. He and his investigators quickly solved the case.”

When Sheriff Proper took charge of the Jay Crimmins murder in 1988, he “did what was then almost unheard of–he agreed to accept assistance from the New York State Police in the sheriff’s investigation. That became the rule, rather than the exception, in the years that followed, to the benefit of countless investigations by many agencies. They quickly solved that case too,” DA Czajka said.

Perhaps his greatest law enforcement legacy, was his unique ability to create so many leaders to follow him, Sheriffs Bertram, Shook, Harrison and Bartlett, as well as his dedicated son, recently retired Deputy Sheriff David Proper.

Behind the scenes throughout Sheriff Proper’s career, and a particularly wonderful person in her own right, (and a registered nurse) was the sheriff’s wife, Marge,” said the DA.

In an interview prior to his retirement with this reporter which appeared in The Independent, July 6, 1989, the sheriff said he was motivated by the “enjoyment of helping people” and the wish to “make Columbia County a better place for residents.”

The sheriff was known for quickly appearing on the scene of any serious situation in the county and jumping in to help when needed.

I’ve never had to ask a man to do something I wouldn’t do myself,” he said. “When I hear something and I arrive on the scene, I see what has to be done. I’m there to offer assistance to my men. I’m not afraid to direct traffic.”

Calling hours take place Thursday, January 3, 2019 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Peck and Peck Funeral Home, 8063 State Route 22, Copake.

A funeral service will be held Friday, January 4, 2019, 11 a.m. from the West Copake Reformed Church, 2688 County Route 7, Copake.

Interment will follow in the Evergreen Cemetery with military honors.

To contact Diane Valden email

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