French: A name in service

By Corene Brisendine

One family has been serving the community continuously since the early 1970s, an involvement that only figures to intensify with the impending promotion of one of its members to a key city position.

That’s OK because Steve, Scott and Mark French have loved their combined 60 years of commitment.

“Once you get into a public service, I think it just gets into your blood and that’s just what you want to do,” said French, the father of Scott and Mark, and a key figure at the Riley County Police Department until his retirement a few years ago.

Scott French, who joined the Manhattan Fire Department in May of 1994, will become its chief March 1. Mark has been with the Riley County Police Department since 1996; he is currently a lieutenant in the investigations division.

The familial involvement dates to a day in 1971 when Steve retired from the military. At the time he wanted to work for the airlines, but in those days airlines were laying off more people than they were hiring. In an attempt to keep his family fed, he found a part-time job with the Ogden Police Department. In December, he joined the Riley County Sheriff’s Department, transferring to the Riley County Police Department when it was created by consolidation of local law enforcement entities in 1974. Steve retired in 2004 as assistant director, but returned in 2007 as interim director while the department sought a replacement for Mike Watson.

Steve said that while Mark and Scott were growing up, he tried to discourage them from public service, but they both saw how rewarding it was.

Scott was taking classes in wildlife management at Kansas State University in hopes of becoming a park ranger when he heard about a student firefighter program with the Manhattan Fire Department. He joined the program and was hooked. He said he had always admired his father and brother for what they do at the police department, but knew it was not the right kind of service for him.

“I want to look at the good in everybody, and part of being a police officer is over the years they get hardened,” he said. “So, they are not as trusting, but that’s what makes them good police officers. I don’t think I would have fit that mold and done well at it.”

Mark was about 22 years old when he decided he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He got his start in Wamego in 1993. In July 1996, he was hired by the RCPD, and still enjoys what he’s doing.

Relations haven’t always gone smoothly, though. In fact Steve’s wife, Kathy, once banned the men from talking shop at family dinners.

“Earlier in our career when our dad was in management, Scott was the president of the firefighter’s union the same time I was president of the [Fraternal Order of Police] lodge,” Mark said. With dad on one side of the labor-management issues and Scott and Mark on the other,  mom decided that silence was the most civil option.

All three laughed at remembering the command, but they never questioned it. Mark said he understands now why his mother gave such a stern objection.

He remembered an explosion across the street from the courthouse. He happened to be at court that day, and was first to arrive at the scene. Soon after, his brother, dad and sister, Niki, who worked for emergency medical services, showed up. When his mother, who worked for the power company, heard about it, she hopped in her car and drove there too.

“I can’t imagine the amount of stress my mom went through with all of us,” Mark said. “She is the rock in the family.”

The stress does take a toll. Mark’s wife jokes about being a single mother because when she goes to the various school events, she is rarely accompanied by him. He said they also work most holidays, or gets a call late at night. Scott said at the fire department, they usually work 24-hour shifts, which also makes it hard on spouses.

Steve said if anyone wants to get into the police or fire department work, they have to love it because for several years it is “shift work.” He said he was not able to enjoy an 8-5 job until late in his career when he moved into management. But that doesn’t mean he had fewer “headaches.” He is glad to be retired because he saw how politics have crept into the departments and that is something he did not enjoy.

But Steve said there are rewards to all those sacrifices.

“When you help somebody—on an accident scene, a fire scene, even a burglary—you can actually see the people sense the fact everything is going to be all right because you are there,” Steve said. “That’s the feeling I get, and I am sure the boys do, too, about Manhattan.”

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