Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Femling remembers ‘wild’ parades

Grand marshal of Wagon Days once participated as police officer

Express Staff Writer

Hailey resident Walt Femling was Blaine County’s sheriff for 30 years. He will serve as the grand marshal of the annual Wagon Days parade. Photo by David N. Seelig

During the heady days of the 1970s and early 1980s, a touch of the Wild West prevailed in Ketchum.

As Ketchum police Officer Walt Femling reported for duty in 1980, activity during holidays and special events was nearing fever pitch.

"We used to just block off Main Street and just give it to the town," said Femling, Wagon Days' Grand Marshal.

Visitors would clear out the beer shelves at the Golden Rule grocery store, he said, then mix it up with locals.

"We just had major donnybrook fights," he said. "There were people shooting firecrackers off roofs and other people shooting back."

The young Officer Femling appeared before the City Council on one occasion to ask for more shirts because his were ripped in the fights.

"That's just how crazy Wagon Days used to be," he said. "It was a lot of fun to work, but it was wild."

Femling went on to become Blaine County Sheriff, a position he held for two dozen years.

Femling retired from the department this spring. Since then, he has been doing consulting work on jails, cold cases investigations and other law-enforcement issues.

"I can pick and choose what I want to do and when I do it," he said. "I don't have to be anywhere at 8 o'clock in the morning except where I want to be."

Activities of choice may now include bike riding, hunting, fishing and getting used to going back to sleep instead of jumping out of bed when an emergency alert is issued for law enforcement.

Like so many long-time residents of the Wood River Valley, Femling came here to ski. He was part of a group of "frat guys" from Washington State University who piled in a car for a trip to the mountains.

"They said, 'Hey, we're going to go ski and have fun before we start being responsible,'" he said.

The fun was interrupted, or destined to continue, when an announcement came over the radio. The Ketchum Police Department was looking for a police officer, and, on a whim, Femling applied.

He built his life and career in the valley, raising a family, switching to the Sheriff's Office and winning re-election as the county's top law-enforcement officer six times.

Femling was greatly influenced by his father, who was in the FBI. The family moved around, following a father who followed crime. The Femling children became well familiar with the law-enforcement culture and lifestyle, tagging along at police schools and getting woken up at night for a goodbye before dad slipped out to pursue a lead.

"My brother and I, we'd get to go shoot at the range and all those fun things a 12-year-old boy wants to do," he said. "But, more than that, it was just watching his career."

Like father, like son: Both appeared on television during high-profile cases. The elder Femling was involved in investigating hijacking cases during the 1970s, including that of D.B. Cooper's 1971 escape. He was in South Dakota during the 1973 American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and was at the standoff with an Aryan Nations group at Whidbey Island, Washington, in 1984.

"He had a great career and one that I wanted to follow him into," he said.

Femling's mother left a lasting impact, as well.

"I learned from her a work ethic and respect and goal setting," he said. "She instilled that in her kids and also in her grandkids. She was a very strong woman."

Femling's work is well known among locals, and even by some crime-case watchers nationwide. His work on the Sarah Johnson double-murder case made headlines coast to coast. But it was the work he did in collaboration with other agencies that brought him the most satisfaction.

"Law enforcement, prosecution, the investigative side," he said, "just the cooperation we had and hard work we did really solved that case."

He also takes pride in the completion of the Blaine County Public Safety Facility in Hailey. Voters approved a bond to pay for the facility in 2007.

Satisfaction also comes from prevention, Femling said, especially his involvement with youth programs such as the Police Activities League, which gets kids involved in fun recreational activities to help keep them away from negative pursuits, the Blaine County Drug Coalition, which addresses drug and alcohol abuse, and others.

"I really do feel proud about some of the programs I've brought in," he said. "It makes a real difference."

People often ask Femling if retirement means a move. He said that although more travel is likely for him and his wife, Jenny, the places he's seen—Alaska's wilds, Hawaii's beaches, California's urban and rural mix—nothing compares to the Wood River Valley.

"This is a wonderful area," he said. "I can't think of a better place to live. I'm staying here."

Rebecca Meany:

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