By Britney Barnes and Lauren Williams
9:15 PM PDT, October 25, 2012
After nearly three decades on the Costa Mesa Police Department, those who know him said Officer Jess Gilman's impact on the community was bigger than even his stature.
"There are a lot of words that you could use to describe Jess Gilman, and no one would disagree that if you use the word 'big,' you wouldn't be misapplying the term," said Costa Mesa High School Principal Phil D'Agostino. "Our elementary kids might use the word 'huge,' 'gargantuan,' 'imposing.'
"There are a lot of things big about Jess, but in my years of working with him, I have found that nothing is bigger than his heart."
Gilman retired from the police force Thursday after 27 years of service — the last 13 of which he spent as a school resource officer for the schools in the Costa Mesa and Estancia zones.
The CMPD celebrated his service at a ceremony at City Hall, which drew about 50 members of the community.
Among them was former Police Chief Dave Snowden.
Snowden, who is the Beverly Hills police chief now, initially hired Gilman at the Baldwin Park Police Department.
Although recovering from pneumonia, Snowden said he "wouldn't miss this for the world."
"I was impressed with him then, and I'm impressed with him today," Snowden said. "I'm glad you made the badge shine, my friend."
To bookend Gilman's service, Snowden joined Costa Mesa's two police captains in handing down Gilman's retirement badge. Gilman's wife, Rhonda, joined the mix, planting a kiss as she handed him his badge.
Orange Coast College student Christian Salazar, 18, also attended the event, saying Gilman's influence reached more than one member of his family.
Gilman's love for the community made his career one of distinction.
"He's always been a part of my life," Salazar said.
Salazar remembered that one day Gilman showed up at his house because Salazar's older brother, then a freshman or sophomore in high school, refused to go to school and stubbornly sat on the roof of the family's home. Gilman coaxed him down and drove him to class.
Salazar and Gilman later forged a bond when Salazar went to high school and was reading "The Hunger Games," a book Gilman just finished.
Gilman left an impression on others who attended the school, Salazar said.
"Officer Gilman has been Estancia's really close friend," Salazar said.
The Newport-Mesa Unified School District also honored Gilman at Tuesday's board meeting.
School resource officers spend their days interacting with students, stopping problems before they start and giving many pupils their first contact with an officer.
The officers build a relationship with students that put them at ease with law enforcement, said board member Dana Black.
"He has been an advisor to administrators, a mentor to students and even what was most impressive to me: a stand-in dad for one particular kid who was at risk and ended up going to one of the most premier universities in the county," D'Agostino said.
Gilman was recognized as the best school resources officer in the state in 2008.
"I know what an outstanding officer he has been and he's really found, I would say, his niche in police work," said school board President Dave Brooks, a former Costa Mesa police lieutenant. "He's really made a difference in many, many lives."
Gilman first began working with children during Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., training at elementary schools — he spend his first day at what was then Davis Elementary School, Gilman told the board.
"I walked in and I introduced myself and this little kid walks up and goes, 'Hi, I'm Colby like the cheese,'" Gilman said. "I thought, boy was I in the right place at the right time, and it just took off from there. This has been the greatest run. My career's been absolutely blessed."