PEABODY — “You can’t see it from this window,” police Chief Robert Champagne says.
But he moves down his office conference room and points out another. “From here, you can see it. That was the family homestead.”
In one sense, he hasn’t moved far in 63 years, serving nearly four decades in a department now located within sight of what had been the Champagne house.
“I’m a Peabody kid,” Champagne says. “I was born in the J.B. Thomas Hospital.”
On June 1, he is leaving a department that he believes has been transformed and modernized during his tenure. “It’s time for new blood,” he says, “new ideas. I’ve been here a long, long time, and it’s time for fresh ideas.”
Champagne joined the department after a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, where he served in a “special operations” unit responsible for rescuing downed pilots in Vietnam. “Our job was to spot ’em and grab ’em.”
He downplays the notion that this was anything remarkable. “At that age, you think you’re indestructible.”
Coming home in 1971, Champagne was part of a trend, attending the first course in criminology at North Shore Community College along with future chiefs Robert St. Pierre (Salem), John Finnegan (Beverly) and Peter Carnes (Wenham). Eventually, he would have multiple degrees, including a master’s.
He was appointed to the Peabody department in 1975 by Mayor Nick Mavroules.
“I was the first police officer to come onto the department with a college diploma,” he recalls.
His colleagues were men who often had no high school diploma, having dropped out to serve in World War II.
“Peabody had a reputation of being rough-and-tumble,” Champagne says. “Blue-collar. Hardworking. And sometimes hard-fighting. ... Route 1 then was loaded with nightclubs. There was lots of drinking.” Fights broke out, and it might require “nonlethal” force to keep order. Champagne had been advised, “Don’t run into the fight, kid. Walk in. And use your head when you’re walking in.”