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July 16, 2013 | 02:04 PMAlmost as much teacher as he was cop, Officer Ralph Braden was the face of the school liaison program in Lake Geneva for 19 years.
Braden officially retired as a Lake Geneva police officer on July 2, after 39 years and one day wearing a badge.
His last few days at the school were to work security for the Mission of Mercy free dental clinic that was in the Badger gym June 28 and 29.
He was getting ready to post the No Smoking signs the day before the free clinic, when he took some time to talk with a Regional News reporter in his office at the high school.
Often wearing a broad grin under his trademark mustache, Braden took a police presence into Badger High School and he made it work.
At the police station, he said, he was referred to as "teacher Braden."
"I'm going to miss Ralph," said Lake Geneva Police Chief Michael Rasmussen. "No one is ever going to truly replace him."
Rasmussen said that Braden defined the police-school liaison position.
Braden's devotion to the program and the work he put into reaching out to students and teachers was "amazing," Rasmussen said. Braden said he's had no trouble connecting with the students.
"I've adopted 35 daughters and a hundred sons," he said. "I've been invited to their weddings, and unfortunately, I attended some of their funerals."
"Ralph was the perfect individual for the job," said Mark Pienkos, former Badger principal and now president of the Lake Geneva Police and Fire Commission. "He had a passion for the school."
Born and raised in Lake Geneva, the Braden family ran the Riviera until the city took it over in 1979.
As a 1976 Badger graduate, Braden knew the school and knew many of the teachers who were still there.
"Knowing the teachers and principals, it was a good fit," Braden said.
Braden said he worked with the police department's gang unit starting in the 1980s.
In the early 1990s, Braden was the department's gang officer. He was a member of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association.
Lake Geneva didn't have any established gangs, but there were a lot of gangbanger wannabes in the city who were causing trouble, he said.
"We didn't have any problems in the school, yet," Braden said.
The key to heading off gangs was getting into schools, where the kids were, Braden said.
Braden said he and former Police Chief Richard Newberry decided the best way to cut off trouble was to go where the young people were, in the school.
Braden moved into Badger High School as liaison in 1995.
Pienkos said the goal of the liaison program was to integrate the police officer into the life of the school.
"It wasn't just a police officer with an office in the school," Pienkos said.
And Braden knew just what to do.
"Here was Ralph, in plainclothes, in the hallway and talking with the kids," Pienkos said. "He was proactive, he wasn't just waiting for things to happen."
Pienkos said the Badger School District, then under Superintendent Harry Van Dyke, were thinking along the lines of a school liaison program in 1994, the same year Pienkos came on as Badger principal.
Pienkos said that in the mid-1990s, Badger was entirely different. It was about half its current size and it was crowded.
And there were discipline issues. Pienkos said that in his first year as Badger principal "we probably had the highest expulsion rate in the state of Wisconsin."
The school district applied for and received a federal grant that covered half of the cost of the program for a few years, and the school-police liaison program was born.
When the program first started, Braden said, he came to the school in uniform. More than once, a student on a dare or just trying to be funny, tried to steal his badge, he said.
Then he went to a sport coat and tie, and found that worked much better.
"Kids will talk to you with a suit coat," he said.
Recently, the uniform was changed to a polo shirt and khakis. And yes, Braden did carry his service sidearm into the school, right up until his last day.
He said he was approached just once by a teacher, who wanted to know when Braden started carrying his pistol into the school.
"I told him I always carried it," Braden said. Students were more accepting. He said that to them, the holster and sidearm was just a part of the uniform.
Braden didn't develop his relationships with students by taking a strict "officer on patrol," attitude.
He's coached Badger football and coached Badger girls softball.
"You need to be in the hallways. You need to talk to kids," he said.
Teachers, particularly social studies and civics teachers, would ask Braden to talk to their classes about the laws and law enforcement in general.
Braden said he, in cooperation with the schools staff and the police and sheriff's departments, developed safety plans for the Lake Geneva schools.
He said the Lake Geneva elementary, middle and high schools have all been conducting lockdown drills, in which students, staff and law enforcement officers practice procedures to be used in the case of an active shooter. Braden said Lake Geneva has been conducting those drills since the 1999 Columbine school shootings.
Wisconsin didn't make those drills mandatory until the next school year, Braden said.
Braden also keeps his eyes open for funding to improve school security.
He said that the police department applied for a $57,000 federal Save Our Schools matching grant for school security. The Lake Geneva school districts matched the grant, he said.
Awarded in 2010, the grants allowed the districts to add between 12 and 16 security cameras in the schools. Those cameras can be monitored from the school offices and by police computers as well, Braden said.
The grant and matching funds also paid for several new security doors at Eastview Elementary School, he said.
Braden said he never planned on being a police officer.
"I just fell into it," he said.
Braden said he married out of high school and was working as a milk delivery man for a local dairy. Then, he broke his foot playing basketball.
A young part-timer was assigned to help Braden make milk deliveries while his foot mended.
Braden said the young assistant was Jeff Nelson, son of then Lake Geneva police Lt. Tom Nelson. He said Nelson told him he should apply to the Lake Geneva police department.
After his foot healed, Braden did just that.
In June 1980, Braden was hired as a reserve (part-time) officer.
Braden earned his certification as a police officer in 1981 at Blackhawk Technical College, Beloit. On July 1, 1981, he was hired as a full-time Lake Geneva police officer.
Braden said his retirement doesn't mean he's going to stop working altogether.
He said he still plans to work part-time as director of maintenance for the Alpine Valley Music Theater.
"That will keep me busy," he said.
Braden said he and his wife, Ginny, live in Burlington. They have three daughters, one who lives in Kenosha one who lives in Muskego and one at home who is majoring in pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin.
The Bradens have two grandchildren.