Local police commend chief’s dedication to job

EAST FREEDOM – Black bands covered two Freedom Township patrolmen’s badges Monday as county officers gathered for a meeting at the township building. From a nearby wall, a photo of Chief John W. Reilly Sr. looked down on his men.

Reilly – Freedom Township’s first and only police chief, who built the department from scratch – died Friday after a long bout with cancer. He was 65.

“Before I came, hell, he was doing everything. I don’t know how he did it,” said Assistant Chief Terry Dellinger, who handled much of the department’s day-to-day field work after an ailing Reilly partially retired in 2011. “He was basically on 24 hours.”

Reilly headed the department from its first day in June 1997, when Freedom Township split from Greenfield Township’s police coverage.

In the 16 years since, the Freedom Township Police Department has grown from Reilly – alone in a 1997 Dodge Intrepid – to three full-time officers, three part-time officers and three patrol cars.

It’s among the best-equipped departments in the area, Township Supervisor Ed Bender said.

But in those early days, Bender said, Reilly worked 80-hour weeks and handled every call that came in.

“We got complaints. They said, ‘Why wasn’t he on at midnight?’ I said, it’s one guy – he can’t do 24-hour shifts,” Bender recalled.

Nevertheless, Reilly soon insisted that he carry a pager, so he could be available all night from home.

A Vietnam War veteran, Reilly worked for a decade at several Blair County departments before taking the job in Freedom Township. Officers who worked with him laughed at his gruff, no-nonsense attitude, cultivated during years in the Marine Corps.

“He didn’t hold back on any of his feelings,” said Martinsburg Police Chief Kerry Hoover, who trained under Reilly when the veteran officer worked in the borough. “He told you all he thought.”

Even as the department grew and Reilly’s declining health kept him from the beat, he found ways to sneak back into service, fellow officers said.

“The supervisors were trying to keep him away for his health. … When there was an open shift, he would lie to us and say it was covered. Well, he was covering it,” Dellinger said. Reilly would show up in a flannel shirt and blue jeans, sometimes not bothering to take his gun.

On days off in winter, he’d drive a plow truck through the township – at least once making an unplanned drug arrest from the truck, Dellinger recalled.

“Everybody knew John. Even the people he arrested still respected John,” Freedom Township Patrolman David Flaig said.

Reilly is survived by his wife, two daughters, three sons and four grandchildren. At least two of his sons followed their father’s path and joined the military, fellow officers said.

Friends are scheduled to be received from 1 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. today at Sorge Funeral Home in Hollidaysburg. A Masonic service is set for 7 tonight, and a funeral service is planned for 11 a.m. Thursday at Puzzletown Road Bible Church.

Police from surrounding departments plan to join in an honor guard, officers said Monday. In addition to his work in Freedom Township and Martinsburg, Reilly served for years in Roaring Spring and Greenfield Township.

“No one’s going to be able to fill the shoes of John Reilly,” Bender said Monday. “That man lived [for] this police department.”