After 33 years as the Columbia Police Department chaplain, Clyde Waters has seen it all – and comforted others who have, too.
He consoled officers through the deaths of their own. And he counseled them when they were forced to shoot a suspect.
He helped talk suicidal jumpers off tall buildings.
Waters has worked with seven police chiefs, witnessing the ups and downs that come when some brought scandal to the department.
Now, Waters is retiring from the job he created. He was honored Friday at a party at Columbia police headquarters as officers gathered to thank him for his service.
Waters never was paid a dime but has spent countless hours riding side by side with Columbia’s police officers. He said he will not completely give up his role. He will remain involved in the department’s Assisting Columbia’s Elderly program, visiting with retired officers and their widows. But, he said, it is time to slow down.
“It was all I expected it to be and maybe a little more,” Waters said. “I wonder what good I’ve done – if anything – over the years.”
Those who have worked with Waters over the years said there was plenty of good.
“He’s a blessing to the department,” said Investigator Pete Banco, who has been an officer for 39 years and was one of the first to take Waters on a ride-along in 1979.
Waters, 72, grew up in a family of police officers and firefighters, so he felt a calling to volunteer at the Columbia Police Department when he arrived in town fresh out of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. He called then-Chief Art Hess and offered to become the department’s first chaplain.
Who is this guy?
At first, officers were hesitant to accept Waters, fearing he might be a spy for the command staff or a preacher trying to build up a church and save souls.
“Most police officers are standoffish,” said Jim Swisher, a retired police major who now leads the department’s elderly program. “It was wait and see.”
Waters recalled when he was introduced to the officers.
“When roll call broke up, those cops got out of there as fast as they could,” Waters said. “A lot of those guys didn’t want to be anywhere near a chaplain.
“It took a year of ride-alongs for me to fully cross what we call the blue wall and cops started to trust me.”
As police chaplain, Waters did not evangelize. Instead, he listened. Cops rarely want to talk about their feelings for fear of appearing weak. So, Waters would ride along to earn their trust. Some chose to talk about problems. Some did not, he said.
Waters described it as a “ministry of presence.”
Swisher said Waters has a gift for getting people to open up.
“He has the ability to critique somebody or offer advice and they don’t know it’s been given,” Swisher said. “He’s never pushy.”
Over the years, Waters has done almost everything for officers. He has performed their marriage ceremonies and preached their funerals. He has helped widows navigate complicated paperwork. He has been called to crime scenes to help officers with victims and to notify families of deaths. Waters helped the department cope with the 1981 death of Dale Barkley, the last Columbia police officer killed in the line of duty.
He also has served as the department’s de facto historian, compiling a roster of hundreds of officers who have served. A large number of the names came from a box of index cards he rescued from a garbage dumpster.
“I’m hooked on it now,” he said. “I can’t stop.”
In his regular job, Waters worked more than 20 years as a chaplain and counselor in the psychiatric unit at Palmetto Health hospital. Sometimes, his day job and his volunteer job overlapped.
He once rushed from the hospital to Cornell Arms on Pendleton Street where a suicidal man was threatening to jump from the roof. Waters climbed a ladder on a rooftop shed where the man was standing on the edge.
Waters convinced the man to climb down and go to lunch. After lunch, “I gave him my card and told him good luck. That was the last I ever heard from him.”
Waters also helped shepherd the department through changes in how officers are treated after they experience trauma, such as having shootouts with suspects.
“You know what they used to do when somebody got shot or shot somebody?” he said. “Two days later, they’d give them their gun back and say, ‘Here you go. Get back to work.’”
Now, the department has a formal stress-management plan that includes debriefings and peer counseling. Waters attends almost all of the sessions.
“A lot of the cops trust him,” said Capt. Alec Sharp, one of the peer counselors who leads the sessions.
Waters also recently developed training to teach rookie cops how to deliver bad news to crime victims’ families. His three basic points are to do it in person, on time and with compassion.
“You don’t beat around the bush with a bunch of hems and haws,” Waters said. “You get straight to the point and give them the information as fast as possible.”
Over the years, Waters also has learned there are some problems he cannot fix.
“I had this illusion that as a chaplain I could help repair morale,” he said. “Well, that can’t happen. It’s about pay, benefits, status and how you’re treated by the administration.”
But those who have worked with Waters said he did his best to make the police department and its officers better.
“I can’t think of one bad thing to say,” Blanco said. “As a matter of fact, I’ll go as far as saying he deserves to have a bronze statue erected. He’s a remarkable person.”
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.