Veteran police officer from unlikely roots

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

Paul Comolli had a paintbrush in his hand at age 4. Barefoot hippie thinkers discussing Nietzsche and the injustice of the Vietnam War chatted at his dinner table while his mother was arrested after staging a sit-in. This is the stuff cops are made of?

Comolli, 38, who is in charge of the DARE anti-drug education program for the Juneau Police Department, said he sprang from poor hippies and has come full circle to be a poor but happy cop.

"My mother is a bizarre combination of Martha Stewart, Betty Crocker and Jane Goodall. ... My dad thinks he's James Bond," said Comolli. "By age 16 I already knew I was a conservative Republican."

His mother had him on his first Harley-Davidson motorcycle at age 14. Meanwhile, she was busy earning four master's degrees and a doctorate on part-time-waitress wages. His dad worked full time in a factory while he earned an equal number of degrees.

"It was a hippie household," Comolli said of growing up in Lawrence, Kan. "Everybody had long hair and bell-bottoms. I was surrounded by art. My mother sold sculptures she made when we needed money. I remember we always had these people over who were also earning their degrees and we'd have all these intellectual discussions at the dinner table, me included. I was 7 years old."

But it was the bohemian lifestyle that led him to long for a life with less struggle.

"I was very goal-oriented and materialistic," he said. "I wanted a little more, a nicer house, a nicer car than my parents had. I wanted to travel.

"When I went to college, other kids were going home to their families for Christmas vacation. I was going home with 'Biff' for Christmas dinner because I knew his dad was the president of Bendix or something. ... I knew it wasn't what you knew, but who you knew."

After an early marriage failed, an 18-year-old confused Comolli landed in Fairbanks, where his father was teaching at the University of Alaska. Comolli enrolled in classes and soon landed a job as a security guard on campus. That's where he found Mary.

"When my wife walked up, I was putting a boot on a guy's car that had parked in a handicapped spot," he said. "Her car was next to his, and she walked up and I saw her and I said, 'I must look like a pretty mean guy.' She said, 'No, if they parked in a handicapped spot they deserve it.' "

That clinched it. But he wasn't free and neither was she. Each was seeing someone else. He kept track of the red-headed beauty for a year, he said.

In the meantime, a friend told him about the police training academy in Sitka, the virtues of serving the community and the spirit of giving back.

"I did it on a dare," Comolli said. " I didn't have anything better to do that weekend."

Mary sent him 104 letters in the 16 weeks he was at the academy.

"The guys at the academy hated me," Comolli said. "Not only did I get more mail than them, but each piece was perfumed. They could smell it down the hall and it drove them crazy. But we fell in love long-distance through phone calls and letters in that four months I was gone."

They were married shortly after he graduated from the academy and took a job as a police officer in Juneau.

Comolli may not have become the economist he thought he wanted to be, isn't married to the "diamond tennis bracelet," and he hasn't seen every corner of the world, as he thought he might.

Instead, he has Mary and his kids, Gabriella, Joseph and Sophia. He gets a call in the afternoon from his wife telling him she loves him. He gets to save maybe one kid from sticking a needle in his or her arm. And, on occasion, he may ticket the BMW he never got.

"My parents always told me you can lose anything," Comolli said. "People can take anything away from you except your education and who you are. That's always yours. No one can rob you of that.

"You don't know when your life's going to take another turn. It's an adventure. You'll probably find a lot of things you don't like to do, but by process of elimination you fall into a niche."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.



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