Former sheriff remembered as dedicated public servant

May 5, 2019

Former Douglas County Sheriff Norm Neal was remembered as a dedicated public servant at a memorial service Saturday at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

Neal, who served as Douglas County Sheriff from 1981-89, and worked in law enforcement in the county for 52 years, died on Feb. 27 at the age of 83.

The Douglas County Inter-Agency Honor Guard performed full law enforcement honors, that included Taps, a ceremonial volley and bagpipes by Heidi Wood of the Military Honors by the Pipes. Nearly 300 people attended the event at the Community Conference Hall.

Monty Neal, Norm Neal’s son and an Oregon State Trooper for 23 years, said his dad was relentless when he was pursuing something.

“It was his drive to be excellent in everything he did, I know he was proud of me in a lot of ways, but also a little upset that I didn’t have that same drive, and he kept trying to push me,” Monty Neal said. “I think he had a liking for people, there was nobody he was afraid to talk to.”

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin joined the sheriff’s office shortly after Neal retired.

“Sheriff Neal was one of a kind, he was a giant in our profession,” Hanlin said. “He was a cop’s cop, he always looked professional and took pride in wearing the uniform.”

During her remarks, Becky Mathis-Willis described a particularly precarious rescue of one man who had a fortuitous meeting with Norm Neal.

That man would eventually become her husband, Rich Willis.

Rich Willis said he fell off about 100 feet off a cliff while hiking south of Glide and broke his back, cracked his skull and had several life-threatening injuries. Norm Neal hiked into the remote area with other SAR personnel and camped out for the night with the injured hiker to give him aid until they could carry him out the next morning.

“Norm spent the night there and kept me alive, I really should have died, but he was determined,” Willis said.

Willis was transported out the next morning and taken to the hospital, and miraculously survived. He has now been married 41 years, has four children, 13 grandchildren and a great grandchild.

Douglas County Emergency Management director Wayne Stinson recalled how Neal supported search and rescue.

“I think he pushed so hard because he had a real desire to return people to their families,” Stinson said. “I think he really understood how important it was to bring closure to families, and he pushed the bounds real hard to ensure we would do everything we could do to recover people.”

Norm Neal served in the U.S. Air Force for four years and at age 21, he joined the Roseburg Police Department and was a rural fire department volunteer at the same time.

He was a first responder during the Roseburg Blast of 1959, where a truck carrying explosives blew up and leveled eight city blocks.

Neal became a deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in 1963 and helped establish the local search and rescue program. He was a founding member of the Sheriff’s dive team.

Neal was the first sheriff in the county to successfully pass a public safety levy to fund the the Sheriff’s Office services during the county’s financial shortfalls in the 1980s.

After his retirement, Neal stayed active as a volunteer with the search and rescue program and was instrumental in establishing the 4x4 SAR Program and was one of the Snowcat operators.

Neal formally retired from his volunteer work with the SAR in 2015.

“For those of us touched by Sheriff Neal’s influence and inspiration, let us not forget it is our duty to carry on with his dedication and commitment to our community,” Hanlin said. “You may be gone but we will never forget.”