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Thomas J. Loftus, nation’s first ‘Officer Friendly,’ dead at 75

Crime fears. Racial tension. Juvenile law-breaking. Police-brutality allegations. Mistrust between protesters and officers.

It sounds like 2015, but it was 1966 in Chicago, when the police shooting of a Puerto Rican man sparked the so-called Humboldt Park riots. Richard Speck shocked the nation by slaughtering eight student nurses in one night in their townhome in the 2300 block of East 100th Street. Vietnam war protests grew.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. moved to the West Side to highlight slum conditions and was brought to his knees when hecklers hit him on the head with a rock thrown during a Marquette Park protest. He famously said, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

This was the atmosphere when the Chicago Police Department launched the nation’s first Officer Friendly program. Smart and engaging, Thomas J. Loftus was picked in 1966 to be the first officer to go into Chicago grade schools in a bid to show children that police could be allies and even friends. The pilot program started at Stewart School, 4525 N. Kenmore.

He reached 10,000 students that first year, talking to students about crossing streets, bicycle safety and “Stranger Danger,” according to the Chicago Police Star magazine. The goal was to cultivate a respect for law and order, said Patricia, his wife of 47 years. That meant listening to the kids, like the little girl who greeted him with the pronouncement, “I am a princess.”

Police Officer Thomas Loftus  | (supplied photo)

Police Officer Thomas Loftus | (supplied photo)

Mr. Loftus, 75, who was Officer Friendly until 1969, died Dec. 20 of complications from prostate cancer. When he was diagnosed in 2000, doctors predicted he would survive seven years, but he surprised them and lived twice as long, his wife said.

His work as Officer Friendly, sponsored by the Sears-Roebuck Foundation, was so successful that by the 1968-69 school year, the department had named 40 Officer Friendlies, who were to connect with an estimated 675,000 Chicago children. The program expanded to include “all public, Catholic, Lutheran, Hebrew and Greek elementary schools,” according to the Journal of American Insurance. Officers started bringing squad cars to schools so students could listen to the radios and work the Mars lights, said the Chicago Police Star.

Soon, Sears was bankrolling the program in 20 cities, including Atlanta, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Oakland, Seattle and Wichita. By the 1990s, it had rolled out in 40 states, according to Sears spokesman Howard Riefs.

While actor Dean Allen, who once voiced Donald Duck, portrayed an Officer Friendly character on an early kids’ TV show in Dallas, Mr. Loftus was the first “real” Officer Friendly from a police department, according to police records and Sears archives.

Mr. Loftus “treated people the way he wanted his family to be treated,” said retired police Capt. Bill McCorry.

“He got along with everybody,” said Emil Giese, a former Town Hall district commander.

His ability to connect stemmed from growing up in a big family, his wife said.

“He came from a family of seven [children], and he was the youngest boy, and there were tons of nieces and nephews,” she said. “He liked kids and [had] a friendly personality and a wonderful smile.”

Mr. Loftus attended St. Margaret Mary grade school near Touhy and Western and Lane Tech High School. He joined the police department in 1961 and worked in the Foster Avenue district. In 1962, he was drafted and spent two years in the Army, serving in Fort Leavenworth before returning to the department. He was assigned to the North Side youth division. After being promoted to sergeant, he worked at the Town Hall District at Addison and Halsted. Later, he was assigned to a senior citizens’ unit at Area 3 at Belmont and Western. He did a stint in the communications center at police headquarters before returning to the Town Hall District. He retired in 2002 after 41 years with the department.

The youth division police work could be grueling, because of the many runaways and juvenile prostitutes at that time in Uptown. They were victimized by sexual predators, and, sometimes, their own families — who looked the other way but took the money their children earned on the streets. “I know Tom arrested priests, doctors, attorneys that were all cruising that area,” his wife said.

Mr. Loftus and his partner, Sgt. Tom Barnett, started hearing street chatter about a troubling cruiser, Barnett said. “Young guys told us they thought he was a policeman, because he had handcuffs and he was always trying to lure them into a car,” Barnett said. “They knew this guy wasn’t right and they were in fear of him, but it was just a matter of finding him. A couple of them had bad experiences with him, let’s say, and got away from him.”

Before Mr. Loftus and his partner came across the man, he was arrested by Des Plaines police for the torture and murder of 33 male victims. His name was John Wayne Gacy.

Mr. Loftus reminded some of a TV character, Detective Columbo — not for his dishevelment, but for his ability to notice minutiae. “Tom had the ability to pick out a little line of details, and he’d remember them and come back and say, ‘Now lets talk about this,’ ” Barnett said. “He had a sixth sense about things and people.”

He met his future wife when he was a rookie officer. She had chauffeured home a girlfriend who’d been celebrating at the old Kon-Tiki Ports restaurant, and a male friend was helping the woman inside her door when a squad car drove past with an older officer and Mr. Loftus. The scene triggered his police instincts.

“He spotted this friend of mine, and he didn’t like the fact some guy was with her and she was wobbling,” his wife said. “I see the police pull up and this young officer gets out and goes running, and I get out of the car and I say, ‘What are you doing? There’s nothing wrong here.’ ’’ By way of introduction, she assured him that she knew a police officer named James Loftus.

She didn’t know James Loftus was his father. “He points to his nameplate, and I said, ‘Oh, hi.’ ”

Years later, she said, the senior officer on the scene asked Mr. Loftus whatever happened to that “dizzy” woman who’d tried to intervene. “He said, ‘I married her.’ ’’

“I had a lot of boyfriends, but I never liked them,” she said. “They were just boring, but he wasn’t.”

They got married in 1967 and had two children. One, Thomas, is legally blind. He became a Cook County prosecutor, a CPA, a downhill skier and a fourth-degree black belt in tae kwon do, Patricia Loftus said. Their daughter, Marny, works as a marketing manager for a spirits and beer importer, and “is a lot like her father — she walks in a room and she lights it up.”

In addition to his wife, children and two grandchildren, Mr. Loftus is survived by his sisters, Catherine Serewicz, Vivien McKune and Sheila Loftus, and his brothers, James and William. Services were held.

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Police Officer Thomas Loftus with elementary school students in the 1960s. | (family photo)

Police Officer Thomas Loftus with elementary school students in the 1960s. | (family photo)