CHICAGO, IL (July 16, 2010) – Officer Michael Chatham says he hopes to live up to the honor of being the first recipient of the Thor Soderberg Leadership Award—named for his Police Academy instructor who was shot to death last week.
Chatham, a North Park University political science major and member of Ravenswood Covenant Church, graduated the Academy on Wednesday. None of the officers knew of the award until it was presented at the end of the bittersweet ceremony. The award will be given annually to the cadet who best exemplifies Soderberg’s character.
“He was the epitome of what a police officer ought to be,” says Chatham. “He knew how to combine humility and have a commanding presence. I think that takes years to learn.”
Soderberg, an 11-year veteran of the force, was killed with his own gun last week after a 24-year-old assailant with a long criminal history, snuck up behind him in a police facility parking and wrestled away the weapon.
The 43-year-old officer was known for his compassion. Coworkers noted that he volunteered as a guide for a blind triathlete, just one example of his commitment to helping others.
When officials made the surprise announcement about the award, the person sitting next to Chatham poked him in the side and said, “It’s going to be you,” but the recipient says he was “stunned” when his name was announced. “When it all sunk in, I was just really humbled.”
After Chatham received the honor, he said, “Everything I do in this job and from here on out, I will always remember Thor. He taught us to be humble even though we are in a great position of power.”
Less than 24 hours later, Chatham attended his instructor’s memorial service at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on Thursday morning. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Chatham says.
A Chicago Tribune headline over a story last week that focused on the cadets’ reactions quoted Chatham, who told the newspaper, “We will make him proud.”
Chatham undoubtedly will, says North Park University Professor Joe Alulis, who is his academic advisor and attended the graduation.
“In the first class Mike had with me, international politics, he stood out for his intuitive grasp of the material, his willingness to speak up, and his personal integrity. He has a strong sense of the nobility of politics, the duty of citizens and the responsibility of statesmen, and his service to his country in the military proves the strength of his convictions.”
Alulis notes that Chatham, who needs 15 credits to graduate the university, earned membership into Pi Sigma Alpha, the national political science honor society. “He is modest about his accomplishments but also conscious of his ability; in class he never hesitates to engage in debate in defense of his opinions or to criticize opinions he thinks wrong. He is also a very nice guy, unassuming, friendly, down-to-earth, and loyal to those who have earned his trust.”
Chatham, 33, has had to attend college intermittently. He attended a different school before being deployed to Iraq with his National Guard unit in 2003. He served as a military police officer. He transferred to North Park University upon his return, but was redeployed to Iraq in 2006. He resumed classes at the school in 2008.
He started at the Academy six months ago after being notified he had been accepted roughly three years after he first applied. His experience and character led Academy instructors to appoint him as Class Commander over one of the four sections into which the 89 recruits had been divided.
Chatham hopes to finish his degree but adds, “I’m afraid it will take some time.” He would like to begin finishing his last 15 hours after he completes his field training during which he will patrol the Austin neighborhood, a heavy crime area in the city.
Chatham says he enjoys working in law enforcement because people have a sense of security when they see police, something he had experienced in Iraq. “It’s a good feeling,” he adds.