Walt Femling came to Sun Valley in 1979 as a ski bum. More or less on a lark, he applied for a job with the Ketchum Police Department and got the appointment, much to the surprise of his buddies. Eight years later he was appointed Blaine County sheriff and then ran successfully six times for re-election as a Republican in a county dominated by Democrats.
The story about Femling's beginning in Blaine County was told by longtime friend Greg Sage at a retirement party Saturday night to honor Femling for his 24 years as the county's top law-enforcement officer.
"We did what most 20-year-olds did—we skied every day," said Sage, who came to the Wood River Valley with Femling and is now a detention sergeant with the Sheriff's Office. Sage further related that Femling learned on his first day of work about what it was going to be like to be a cop. He said Femling was several hours late getting off work that first day because of a fatal traffic accident that he had to help cover on Warm Springs Road.
Monday was officially Femling's last day as sheriff. He announced his resignation in early January, citing health problems that he has declined to discuss publicly.
Several hundred people attended Femling's retirement party, held at River Run Lodge in Ketchum and officially dubbed "Walt's Wingding."
The event had a program, but mostly people just mingled, telling stories about Femling and discussing his legacy as Blaine County sheriff.
"Everybody's here," said Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi. "I got to know him during the Castle Rock Fire because we were together in the EOC [Emergency Operations Center] for two and a half weeks and I was really impressed with the concern he showed for the people of the north valley. He's had his critics, but I can put that all away after seeing him at work."
Ketchum City Councilman Curtis Kemp said he first met Femling when Femling worked for the Ketchum Police Department.
"I just think it's great to see how he's performed over the years," Kemp said. "I think Walt's done a good job for the county."
Former Bellevue Marshal Ron Taylor showed up, saying that he's now living in the Salt Lake City area since retiring two years ago. A longtime employee of Femling's, Taylor said, "Walt's probably one of the best bosses I've had an opportunity to work under."
"Walt's been a good friend and certainly we'll miss him," said Capt. Ed Fuller, who was named Tuesday as Blaine County chief deputy, replacing Gene Ramsey, who was selected Monday by the Blaine County commissioners as Femling's replacement.
Ramsey was one of several speakers during the program. He teased Femling about showing up for his first day as sheriff without any bullets.
"Walt comes in with a .38-caliber revolver and said, 'Do you have any ammo?'" Ramsey said. "I said, 'No, we all have 9 mms.' So we had to run around and find some ammo so he'd have a loaded gun for his first day on the job."
Ramsey said Femling made a habit of doing "the right thing" even when it wasn't the "popular thing to do."
"Walt, thank you so much for having the courage to do the right thing," Ramsey said.
Several speakers talked about highlights of Femling's career, with the most mentioned being the years of work he put in for a new public safety building and the investigation of the Johnson murders in 2003.
Femling's father, Jerry Femling, a retired FBI agent, said he lived in Tucson, Ariz., during the Johnson investigation and trial and frequently watched his son on national television discussing the case.
"I think Walt did an outstanding job in handling that," Jerry Femling said. "Along with his department, Walt came through on handling a very difficult situation."
Dan Chadwick, director of the Idaho Association of Counties, said he traveled with Femling on association business several times to New York City.
"Now matter how tough you think Walt is, he loves Broadway musicals," Chadwick said.
Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter also showed up at the event.
"I wish him nothing but the best in his future," Gunter said, "It's great to see a huge turnout. It's a great tribute. I've enjoyed the past three and a half years working with him. It will be tough to replace him. I hope the person that replaces him has the same attitude of working together that Walt did."
Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas also said Femling will be missed.
"The guy has done a good job," Thomas said. "It's going to take the new sheriff a long time to fill his shoes."
Sheriff's Lt. Curtis Miller said Femling had been an inspirational leader.
"Walt inspired everyone in the department to be a leader in the department, a leader in the community and a leader in their family," Miller said.
In a brief interview, Femling said he plans eventually to work as a consultant on drug- and alcohol-prevention programs for counties and Indian tribes, but for the time being he plans to concentrate on his health.
"I'm going to take a month to myself," he said. "I'm not going to go into anything else right now. I'm going to take it easy for a little while."
Femling said the decision to retire was a difficult one.
"It's been really overwhelming, all the cards and e-mails and calls from people wishing me well," he said.
Femling said he plans to remain in Blaine County.
"I'm staying here, I'm not leaving, this is home."
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org