The last day of 2018 marked more than just the eve of the new year. Dec. 31 was also islander Kurt Lysen’s last day as a King County sheriff’s deputy after 38 years — and four months — on the force.
And while his life’s road has had its share of peaks, valleys and the occasional dangerous corner, by many accounts Lysen has always put his heart and soul into this community. Having been assigned to the island by the sheriff’s office on and off since 1991, he raised three of his four children here, drove the Vashon Shuttle and worked at the theater. He’s always been more than just another cop manning a speed trap.
Vashon’s affable, and last locally based law enforcement officer, grew up in Hawaii, where he joined the Coast Guard as a young man. It was an assignment with the Coast Guard that first brought him to the Pacific Northwest in 1978. While in the area, a friend suggested he take the test to apply to become a King County sheriff’s deputy, and he did, though he was not accepted initially. But some months later the sheriff’s office contacted him again, and he completed the remaining testing required for acceptance as a recruit. On Aug. 5, 1980, five days after being discharged from the Coast Guard, Lysen was in the “academy” at the Washington State Criminal Justice Center on his way to becoming a deputy.
“When I graduated I was stationed in Burien, and then spent the better part of a decade working places like White Center, SeaTac, Skyway and Southpark,” he said. “Almost everywhere in South King County except Vashon. But I always heard the Vashon calls over the radio.”
Lysen recalled seeing the flames from LS Cedar’s 1990 fire from where he was working in White Center. He also recalled that the sheriff’s office had trouble getting officers to work on the island.
“The sergeant couldn’t get anyone to work out here,” he said. “So I said I’d do it for three months. After three days, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a nice place.’ That was September of 1991, and I never left.”
Having grown up in Hawaii, Lysen said he has always been “an islander at heart,” and made the decision to stay both professionally and personally, moving his wife and their three young daughters to Vashon three years — the length of time it took for an appropriate, affordable rental to become available — after first volunteering to work on Vashon.
He remembered the first call he responded to on the island: A woman’s car had broken down on the highway outside Courthouse Square. He offered to help her push it off the road and into the parking lot so that it wouldn’t get impounded.
“And she said to me, ‘You’re not like the other mainland cops, are you?’ That was the first compliment I had here,” he said with a laugh.
But while Lysen’s island tenure began with a helpful push and a good first impression, it was not without its difficulties. Working high-violent crime areas for 10 years took its toll on Lysen, and while Vashon felt like a gentle breath of fresh air, the trauma he suffered lingered, leaving him “coming to work prepared for war” — but there was no war here. So he got counseling for help “re-programming,” as he put it.
Then came a divorce, which led to an admitted drinking problem. Lysen said that while he never drank on the job, he did work while hungover on occasion. He was subsequently transferred off Vashon, to provide him with the oversight that his superiors felt was necessary at the time. He also quit drinking, and didn’t touch any alcohol for the last 18 years of his career.
“I did what I needed to do,” he said.
Working as a deputy on the island on and off during that time, he was permanently re-assigned to Vashon in 2014.
“Vashon is just a great fit for me,” he added.
Islander event and music planner/promoter Pete Welch agrees.
“For a long time I just tried not to know any of the police officers on the island — I always felt it was best if they didn’t know me!” he said in an email to The Beachcomber. “But then you meet someone like Kurt and you can’t help but love the guy.”
Lysen is the last King County sheriff’s deputy to both live and work on the island (he said there were six when he first started), and it was being a part of this community that helped inform his actions both on the job, and off.
“I never gave out a ‘chippy’ ticket,” he explained with his infectious grin. “If you got a ticket from me, you deserved it. I often made phone calls to the parents of the kids I’d catch speeding — that was way more effective than issuing a ticket.”
And it also made the darkest days harder.
“Notifying folks that they’ve lost loved ones was the most difficult,” he explained. “But I am glad I was able to do it, and that it wasn’t some stranger going to my friends’ homes to tell them.”
While not famously giving away his speedtrap locations on Facebook — “If I didn’t do it, someone else would have” — Lysen volunteered as a Vashon Shuttle driver until 2005 and then at the theater until just recently.
“Kurt is like a much-loved family member to all of us here at the theater,” Vashon Theatre owner Eileen Wolcott said. “He has been giving us one day a week, every week, for well over a decade. Pretty good when you think about the fact that he has been working a career and raising a family. Kurt is the expert on all things Vashon. He is that first call I make when I need help. Some of our guests come looking for him here, too. I remember a comedy show where a comedian pointed to him as an example of the kind of person you find on Vashon and saying, ‘Look how laid back this guy is,’ and someone shouted back, ‘And he’s the sheriff.’”
One of Lysen’s former co-workers at the theater, Zach Oriel, described a time when Lysen was taking tickets for a movie one night and a woman told him he looked familiar to her — to which he responded, “I probably gave you a speeding ticket.”
Perhaps the woman wasn’t on Facebook. And while speeding seems to be a predominant theme of Lysen’s time as an island deputy, he noted that domestic violence, burglaries, drug-related incidents and driving under the influence are serious problems inherent to Vashon’s crime profile.
As for his most memorable “Vashon” calls? A celebrity and former islander is responsible for those.
“John Ratzenburger’s house alarms. They were going off all the time,” Lysen remembered with a chuckle. “He gave me an autographed picture of himself for all the times we went to his house — even though I also caught his wife (at the time) speeding once.”
Deputy Jeff Hancock, who used to work regularly with Lysen on the island, offered his thoughts on his former colleague’s work in this community:
“Vashon is a unique community that requires a unique type of policing. Kurt was the perfect and most effective deputy Vashon could ask for. What I saw that set Kurt apart from all the other deputies working the island was his true love for the island and for the people who call Vashon home. He had a vested interest and commitment to making Vashon safe. Kurt was an expert at the art of holding people accountable while at the same time, showing thoughtful discretion when dealing with problems that over town would have been remedied with a quick trip to jail. Kurt would take the time to dig to the bottom of a problem in order to fix the problem long-term for the community of Vashon. I don’t think people realize that even though Kurt worked 40 hours a week in uniform, he was on-duty 24/7. He was always available for the community to approach him for police related issues whether at the Eagles, at the theater, or just walking around town. He was also more than happy to have me or any other deputy call him on his days off with inquiries about anything pertaining to Vashon. Kurt’s presence working on the island has helped keep Vashon the safe Vashon we all know. He will be missed by all but the criminal element.”
As of his birthday on Monday this week, Lysen is 63 and has been “getting lots of sleep” since his retirement began with the new year. He also noted that he’s still getting a lot of messages from people who need help or have questions.
Do they not know he’s retired?
“No, they usually start the messages with, ‘I know you’re retired but …’”, he explained cheerfully.
He would like to travel, at very least to get back to Hawaii to visit friends, but Vashon will always be home.
“It’s my base, my kids live here,” he said.
And not just three of his daughters, but two grandchildren now as well. Lysen also has a daughter and grandchild that live in Puyallup.
So don’t be surprised to see his smiling face picking up an occasional shift at the theater or having fun at Strawberry Festival.
What will he miss the most?
“My favorite thing about working here was just getting out and talking to people,” he said. “There are just so many friendly people.”
There will be a retirement celebration potluck for Lysen on Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Vashon Eagles, with music by Leo Aloha. All are invited to attend and bring a side dish to share.