"One of a kind... Our rock... Truly a fine co-worker" Rev Lonning retires after 38 years of service to the local community through the Allamakee County Sheriff's Office

Rev Lonning of Waukon officially brought her 38-year career with the Allamakee County Sheriff's Office to a close in September. She is pictured above at the September 29 retirement reception held in her honor at the new Allamakee County Public Safety Center with the two most recent Allamakee County Sheriffs she has worked with, left to right in back, Clark Mellick and Tim Heiderscheit, who referred to her as "our rock" and "truly one of a kind," respectively. Submitted photo.

Several members of the family of Rev Lonning were able to attend the September 29 reception honoring her retirement from the Allamakee County Sheriff's Office. Pictured above, left to right, are Lonning's daughter, Michelle Donahue; Lonning's grandson, Cory Donahue, and his wife, Samantha; Rev Lonning; Lonning's grandson, Devin Donahue; and Lonning's daughter, Rebecca Paxston, and her husband, Tim Paxston. Submitted photo.

by Lissa Blake

She is truly one of a kind.

That was what former Allamakee County Sheriff Tim Heiderscheit had to say about longtime Allamakee County Sheriff's Department employee Rev Lonning following her recent retirement.

Heiderscheit, who served first as an Allamakee County sheriff’s deputy and then as sheriff, said when he heard of Lonning’s retirement, he sent current sheriff Clark Mellick a sympathy card.

“I was somewhat kidding, but I really wasn’t… the whole county will miss her,” said Heiderscheit.

Lonning, a 1959 graduate of Waukon High School, is the daughter of Dale and Elnora Robey. After high school, she married Frank Lonning and raised six children.

“I was a farm wife and mother,” said Lonning.

Then in 1979, after all her kids had gone to school, she saw an article in the Waukon newspaper about some renovations to the existing sheriff’s office. Previously located in a small space on the second floor of the Allamakee County Courthouse, the office had been expanded to the fourth floor, which had been used as living space for the sheriff.

It wasn’t long after, she saw an ad in the paper that they were looking for a dispatcher. “In those days, we were just entering the '80s farm crisis and I thought it would help to get a job,” she said.

Lonning said she was surprised when they called and hired her for the position. At the time, Neil Becker was sheriff.

When Lonning started, there was a police radio, but no computers. “I remember I had to learn all the different frequencies to talk to different people,” she said.

In addition, there was no centralized computer registry for things like vehicle registrations and drivers licenses, so the sheriff’s office kept its own card files.

“My main job in the beginning was that every day the treasurer would bring up new registrations and licenses and I had to type them out. We had two index files, with little cards listing the make, model, year, color, license plate number and the name of the person it was registered to. These were some huge files. They kept us kind of busy,” she said.

The dispatchers did all of the County’s secretarial work, and if they needed any information from the rest of the state or another county, they had to contact them.

“I felt sorry for Winneshiek County - they had the first teletype machine in the area and they received information for four counties and had to pass it along to us,” she said. A teletypewriter, also referred to as a teletype machine, is a now largely obsolete electro-mechanical typewriter that was used to communicate typed messages from point to point through a simple electrical communications channel. A few years later, Allamakee County got its own teletype machine.

Lonning said the next big innovation was the addition of computers, followed by the advent of everyone being assigned a 911 address in the late 1990s.

“After that happened, everyone had a street address. That was a huge innovation for us. Before that, any new deputy was expected to spend their nights driving around and finding out where things were,” she said.

“It was a challenge sometimes to find things … we’d grab a plat book and look up the township … back then we used landmarks, such as the ‘big tree’ or the ‘tar paper shack,’ to help emergency personnel find where they were going.”

Lonning said Abigail Osterholm, head dispatcher at the time, was instrumental in helping her learn the ropes. “She was the one who whipped me into shape. You didn’t want to displease her,” she remembered.

Lonning said while she loved her job, there was sometimes a lot of stress associated with it - often because she knew the people involved in emergency calls.

“I was working the night my nephew, Charlie, was killed. That was probably the hardest day I had on the job,” she said.

She remembered another time when someone phoned in a domestic dispute and she lost contact with the deputy who went to investigate. “The last I had heard, he was in his car and he told the husband to come out with a loud speaker and the guy was chasing him with a weapon. He turned off his radio and I didn’t know what had happened to him … I didn’t know if the woman was dead or if the deputy was dead …

“So, I called in all sorts of back-up from Fayette and Winneshiek Counties. By the time the rest of them got there, he had the man in custody… His excuse for chasing the deputy was that he thought someone was trying to break in.”

“Sometimes it was stressful. And If something bad happened, you could second-guess yourself all night,” she said.

Although working as a dispatcher involved many stressful situations, there was also some comic relief at times.

Lonning said there were a lot of funny things - many of them she could never tell. In fact, a huge percentage of 911 calls aren’t even emergencies.

Lonning started laughing as she remembered one of the funniest calls she ever took.

“I’ll always remember the guy who called because his duck got his feet frozen to the ground. I said, ‘Well, try to get it warm around his feet,’” she said.

“Another time a little boy called and said, ‘I have the meanest dad in the world.’ When I asked him why, he said because his dad wouldn’t let him walk downtown by himself,” she said.

Other times, there are real emergencies where the public is pleading for help during an urgent situation. “Many of them are situations where a husband is alerting you that his pregnant wife is in labor and he’s coming to town … he’ll call to ask the sheriff not to stop him (because he’s driving fast) or even to provide an escort,” she said.

“Some of the babies have been born before they got to the hospital… they have to pull over to the side of the road. However, usually by then there is an ambulance there to assist,” she said.

Lonning said the bottom line is that in that kind of job, you never know what you’re going to have to deal with when you pick up the phone.

“It could be a Tuesday night and you think, ‘Oh, this should be a quiet day.’ You just don’t know, especially with domestic disputes… those were always hard calls to take,” she said.

Lonning said people aren’t always aware of the many other roles a dispatcher ends up playing. When former sheriff Neil Becker lived in the courthouse (prior to 1979), his wife was responsible for making the inmates their meals. Later on, the County got meals from Makee Manor and later Southcrest. Today, the dispatchers serve three meals a day to the inmates.

Lonning said over the years, she had inmates “who find out when they’re in jail they can be decent people. Some called me Grandma… I always took it as a compliment. I think they appreciated that I always treated them decently. That meant something to me, too. I guess I was always thinking, ‘That could have been one of my kids,” she said.

With regard to her many responsibilities through the years, Lonning said, “You do whatever is required of you, whether it’s checking on inmates or answering the calls. The main priority is always the calls you get for public and officer safety, but you are also responsible for the inmates’ welfare and safety. You wear a lot of hats in that position,” she said.

“I remember someone introducing me once as the ‘person who answered the phone at the sheriff’s office.’ It was a lot more than that,” said Lonning.

Lonning said one of the things that made her 38-year career so enjoyable was the people. “I worked with some great people, from deputies to the city police to other dispatchers,” she said.

And when asked about it, several of Lonning’s former co-workers said the feeling was mutual.

Neil Becker, who was Allamakee County Sheriff from 1973-2000, called Rev “A truly fine co-worker. When she was asked to do something, she did it, and you knew it would be done right.”

Heiderscheit added, “She filled so many different roles. It’s a difficult balance, from overseeing sheriff’s sales, where people are losing everything, to the many other positions. She was a dispatcher, jailer, the County’s civil secretary who did all the books and payroll, the County insurance representative, and she also was our union steward, because she understood budgets. On top of that, you could always depend on her to fill in a shift when we were short-handed. She was an unbelievable employee for the County and she was so loved by her co-workers and the inmates. She was just real kind to them, but she still enforced the rules.”

Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick agreed. “Rev has been an absolute pleasure to work with at the sheriff's office. She is the kind of employee that you hope to have working with you. Rev has given more of herself to the sheriff's office and the community than we will ever know. Her work ethic and attitude are an example for others to follow. Rev has been our ‘rock.’ As Sheriff, I am proud to have served with Rev and I wish her the best in her retirement,” said Mellick.

Lonning serves on the Veterans Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees and as a deacon at First Presbyterian Church. She also was named Waukon's Person of the Year by the Waukon Chamber of Commerce in recent years.

Today, she enjoys catching up with friends and spending time with her children and their families. Her children include: Michelle Donahue of Waukon, Sharon Larson of Columbia Heights, MN, Lori Moore of Lilburn, GA, Rebecca Paxston of Le Claire, Robert Lonning of Davenport and Dale Lonning of Asbury.

She has 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

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