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Mike Downey

WINTER OLYMPICS : There Ought to Be a Law Like the One in Champaign, Ill.

February 23, 1988|Mike Downey

CALGARY, Canada — We called the Champaign, Ill., cops, the minute their local girl made good, but half of them were out working on a homicide. The other half, said the officer who answered the phone, were over at the Chancellor's Inn, watching the Winter Olympics on a bunch of TVs with 12-foot screens.

We called the Chancellor's Inn, but hardly anybody there could hear. "I'll connect you with the party," said the hotel operator who answered the phone--and by party, she definitely meant party. "I can't hear you!" said the bartender who picked up the extension. "Speak louder! We're having a party in here!"

They were drinking and toasting their woman with wine and song Monday night, because the Champaign lady, Bonnie Blair, got the gold medal and the world record in 500-meter speed skating race. In a town kind of down due to the University of Illinois football team's recently having being put on National Collegiate Athletic Assn. probation, Blair's Olympic success picked up everybody's spirits--especially the law's.

"I know there's a big group back home in Champaign at one particular spot watchin', and I want to thank those guys," said the golden girl herself. "Between them and my family, I couldn't ask for a better fan club."

Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am. Just the facts, ma'am. After all, Bonnie Blair is living proof that there is a cop around when you need one. The Champaign police department's benevolent association put up the money to finance her Olympic bid, making her the one tax-paying citizen who would never be pulled over for speeding.

The force was with her.

We called back the cops, and reached Juvenile Det. Jerry Schweighart and Det. Sgt. Danny Strand, two of Champaign's finest. They were the happiest police officers since Muldoon and Toody. They were like a couple of cops who had just bought a lost child an ice-cream cone. If we could see through a long-distance telephone wire, we could have seen these two proud guys popping their uniform buttons.

"Bonnie came to see me in 1982, and said she needed money," Schweighart said. "I asked her how much. She said she'd gone to several local businessmen, all of whom told her, 'Good luck,' and that was it. She said she needed $7,000 for the next year, and had about a month to raise it.

"I told her, 'You go skate. I'll worry about the money.' "

The men and women of Champaign's 81-person police department dug into their pockets and their pension fund and came up with the bucks. Remember, this was not some automotive corporation or cereal company or sporting-goods conglomerate that couldn't wait to plug itself as an official sponsor of the United States Olympic movement. This was just a squad room full of college-town cops, trying to do some good.

"I'm a juvenile detective," Schweighart said. "I'm trying to get kids to come to us for help and advice."

Strand chimed in: "She was just a lovely little kid, going for the Olympics. She was going to tell the whole world that law enforcement cares about kids."

The police officers sold raffle tickets. They helped Blair buy a pair of racing skates and some tights. They watched her get better and better. They watched her place eighth in the 500 meters at the 1984 Olympics. They watched her win 16 medals in U.S. Olympic Festivals. They watched her set an 1987 world record. They beamed.

And on their monster TV sets Monday night, they watched her win the whole works.

"Hey, we know how to pick the gold," Schweighart said.

"Do you have a lottery?" Strand asked. "I feel like we just won the lottery."

The sarge just couldn't get over it. "We got behind a girl that came along looking for help," Strand said. "Who'd have thought that she'd be faster than a speeding bullet, and be Superwoman?"

In time for the race, Blair received a dozen roses. They were delivered by squad car, courtesy of a Canadian police officer who assured his U.S. counterparts that he would get them to her in time. The card attached to the flowers said: "You Certainly Are a Sweetheart. The Champaign Benevolent Assn."

Plus, a P.S.:

"We Love You. Jerry and Danny."

We were going to talk a little longer, but Sgt. Strand got called away. In Champaign, they do not have murders all that often, but they had one at the moment, and the detective was back on duty. He had to hit the street.

One last thing, though.

Sgt. Strand's tip for the day.

"Kids, if you're in trouble, and you haven't asked a policeman, then you haven't asked everybody," he said.

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