Nearly 36 years ago, standout football player John Gregory signed on as a cadet with the High Point Police Department in North Carolina. The 17-year-old spent after-school hours planting seeds in the lives of young people so they would not end up in jail.
"I was not that much older than them," said Gregory, now chief of the Rock Hill Police Department. "I could relate. I was trying to be a leader and role model to them. It was a great experience. I wouldn't take anything for it."
This year, that lanky cadet-turned-police officer marks his five-year anniversary as Rock Hill's police chief. Since 2003, the department has added 15 sworn positions, become more racially diverse, increased its focus on community policing and improved its technology.
Last week, the police department was awarded a $280,000 grant to be used to purchase electronic citation writers, Gregory said. That device allows officers to scan driver's licenses and tickets are produced electronically.
"Hopefully, we will have E-tickets in every patrol car by this time next year," Gregory said.
Another grant is responsible for renovations and new software in the dispatch center. Traffic, street crime and patrol cars are now outfitted with digital cameras and new mobile data terminals that allow officers in the field to pull up information whenever they need it.
Within Gregory's first three months on the job, Tasers were put in every officer's hands. Gregory also initiated a mobile command center that has been used at crime scenes and during critical situations and initiated the department's crime strategy dubbed CompStat -- data used to track and combat crime trends and hold police officers accountable.
"I've learned so much," said Gregory, 53. "We've made a good agency better. My presence has helped, but there are some tremendous people in this police department."
Gregory became Rock Hill's first black police chief when City Manager Carey Smith appointed him to the post in 2003.
One of his initiatives was an intensive recruiting and training program to make the department more diverse. In June 2003, 19 black men and women held sworn and non-sworn positions in the 145-member department.
By last month, that number nearly doubled, rising to 32 black men and women of the 166 members, according to the department.
The department focused on cleaning up and revamping five crime-ridden neighborhoods with the Weed & Seed program. Police and other city officials and volunteers picked up trash, removed overgrown shrubbery and repaired homes to make it more difficult for criminals to hide.
Smith said he's pleased with Gregory's performance.
"He represents a person of integrity," Smith said. "His character has been exemplary."
Police Capt. Charles Cabaniss said Gregory is a true leader.
"He's like a breath of fresh air for the Rock Hill Police Department," said Cabaniss, a department veteran of more than three decades. "He has been a police officer and came up through the ranks and understands what police officers go through."
Gregory overcame obstacles and setbacks as a child. He was born and raised in High Point, the son of John Jr. and Earlene Gregory. His mother was a trained beautician, and his father worked as a bell captain at a Sheraton Hotel.
When Gregory was 5, his father died. His 13-year-old sister -- his role model -- died due to complications from asthma. Six years later, Gregory's mother died.
Gregory, then 17, and his younger brother and sister moved in with their aunt in High Point. "I was playing football in high school," Gregory said. "That was my only bond, because it was like family."
Days after his mother's funeral, then-High Point Police Capt. O.H. Leak, with recommendations from Gregory's coaches, teachers and administrators, dropped by Gregory's home, where the teen filled out an application to become a police cadet. Gregory said his father and Leak were close friends. Leak believed that if the son would be like his father, the younger Gregory would succeed.
Gregory went back to playing football, winning the state championship that year.
"I'd actually forgotten about the application," Gregory said. "It was the last thing on my mind."
Weeks later, Gregory was summoned to the high school office, where he learned he had been selected as a cadet. Later, he and others were outfitted with an "office" blazer, shirt and slacks and a police identification card.
"It was the same ID as the police officers had," he said. "We thought we were big stuff."
The police cadet effort hosted programs targeted to middle school students and offered junior police clubs in low-income areas to deter young children from a life of crime.
"After school, I was sitting with delinquent kids, and I'm thinking, 'How did I get here?" he said, referring to the cadet program. "My mentor told me, 'You're going to make it. You will be successful.'"
Gregory's police cadet shift was supposed to end at midnight, but his boss said education was paramount.
"We got off at 10 p.m. so we could do our homework and have decent grades," Gregory said.
After nearly three years as a cadet, Gregory completed the police academy on his 21st birthday and was sworn in the next day as a High Point officer.
But he had other responsibilities: He became the legal guardian for his younger brother for about a year and took care of his sister after their aunt died.
"I signed my brother's report card," Gregory said. "That was weird."
Gregory credits his late mother, grandmother and aunt for shaping his life.
"They were hard on me," he said. "They taught me how to survive."
From the women, Gregory said he learned endurance and the importance of being humble. Those qualities and others helped him get nearly 31 years under his belt with High Point police before he retired and became a candidate for the Rock Hill chief post.
"I've been related to law enforcement for 36 years," Gregory quipped.
Gregory's family and others say police business is his passion.
"He has always shown sincere dedication and commitment as a police officer," said Gregory's wife, Sylvia. "I admire him because he has been through so much. But he has just stood firm and did what he needed to do."
Being committed to policing has caused Gregory to miss some important functions. When he was a High Point patrol officer, he was investigating a murder hours before a police recognition event. He was relieved by a fellow officer and had to rush home to get dressed before picking up Sylvia, whom he had not married yet.
"I got that look for a minute," Gregory recalled. "Then we laughed about it later. I barely got there. I ended up being recognized as officer of the year."
In another instance, Gregory was being recognized for becoming a captain.
"I was running late because I was working on an internal investigation," he said. "I had to get home and really rush. I just barely cooled off by the time I got to the affair."
That dedication helped Gregory push through the rough spots in his life. And it gained him the admiration of his sons, John and Christopher Gregory.
Both see their father as a hero.
"He wasn't supposed to be where he is now," said John Gregory, 22. "He overcame a lot of obstacles. That's amazing."
Christopher Gregory, 31, said his father taught him how to be a man.
"I'd just gotten my first car," Christopher Gregory recalled. "They made me get a job, and I had to pay for half of the car to teach me about value and not taking things for granted."
A lesson learned about integrity nearly cost Christopher his best friend. He said his friend pulled out a bag of marijuana while riding in the car one day. An argument ensued. Then Gregory kicked his friend out of the car.
"He always uses that story when giving speeches about building character," Christopher Gregory said of his father. "That embodies everything that he taught us."
Rock Hill City Councilwoman Kathy Pender said Gregory always has been willing to listen to residents' concerns. "I have found him to be a person who cares very much about the people he serves," she said.
Yet, Gregory wants no accolades for doing his job. "I have a lot I still want to accomplish in Rock Hill," he said. "This agency has moved forward. Its future is looking bright."
Toya Graham • 329-4062