BANGOR, Maine — Former Bangor police chief Don Winslow died Thursday after having spent the last few months of his life sharing his experience facing terminal cancer and being embraced by the community he served.
He was 57.
Winslow was the 27th chief of the Bangor Police Department and passed away quietly at his home with his family at his side, Police Chief Mark Hathaway said in a statement.
“Don lived his life, managed his police department and fought his battle with cancer in much the same way — with courage, compassion and always with a great sense of humor,” Hathaway said. “He will always be our Chief.”
During a handful of public appearances this year, Winslow spoke about his nearly 28 years with the Bangor Police Department and his three years early in his public safety career with the Old Town Fire Department, referring to his former co-workers as his “family.” He also spoke about knowing the end of his life was near.
“I don’t want people to pity me,” Winslow said to BDN columnist Renee Ordway as friends greeted him at a local restaurant in February. “I’ve had an incredibly blessed life. I know that this is easier for me than it is for the people around me. I’m extremely grateful for all I’ve had, for my career with Bangor PD, for my family and for my friends who I simply cherish. I do know that I’m not going through this final journey alone.”
Winslow started his career as a junior firefighter for the Old Town Fire Department, a job he took on while still attending Old Town High School. He became a full-time firefighter on his 19th birthday — Feb. 9, 1976.
Fighting fires was rewarding, he would later say, but it didn’t keep him busy enough, so he joined the Bangor Police Department on April 30, 1979. He worked his way up through the ranks and became chief in 1998, a position he held for eight years until he retired at the end of February 2007.
“It’s really great to be in the know,” Winslow said the week he retired from the force. “It’s really the best seat in the best show in the world.”
Winslow said one his most satisfying roles was serving as the Bangor police department’s first community relations officer in 1987. He was able to have positive interactions with city residents and teach area children that police officers are there to help, not just to arrest people.
He taught Drug Awareness Resistance Education classes at Mary Snow School and helped organize some Neighborhood Watch programs. He had an office in the city’s Capehart neighborhood, and on Tuesdays he recorded “Police Files,” safety tips broadcast on WABI-TV 5.
Winslow was diagnosed in 2002 with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disease of the brain that affects movement, muscle control and balance, and he said that played a role in speeding up his retirement plans.
In 2010, three years after retiring, he was diagnosed with cancer in his head and neck. At the same time, his wife, Dora, was battling ovarian cancer.
After undergoing treatment, they both celebrated their NED status — “no evidence of disease” — early in 2012. Don Winslow felt so good earlier this year that he decided he was ready to return to protecting the public.
He announced plans in February to run for the Penobscot County sheriff’s seat, but withdrew from the race a few weeks later after learning his cancer was back, this time in his lungs.
Winslow kept a sense of humor despite the bad news and even joked at a benefit dinner held in his honor in March that he considered staying in the sheriff’s race and using slogans like “Elect Don Winslow for sheriff — dead or alive.”
Winslow halted his chemotherapy treatments around the end of May as a quality-of-life decision, and he and his wife picked out a burial plot together at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
To pay homage and show their love for Winslow, friends and family organized a surprise flash mob on June 17. Dora Winslow took her husband out for a quiet stroll along the Bangor Waterfront and the flash mob of more than 100 people emerged from hiding places and danced to the couple’s delight.
The song lineup included “Love Train” by The O’Jays, “Can’t Touch This” by M.C. Hammer, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge and “Thank You for Being a Friend” by Andrew Gold.
Dora and Don Winslow dabbed tears from their eyes and smiled. Dora Winslow held tight to her husband’s arm.
A group of police and firefighters from Bangor, Brewer and the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, along with a few other friends, walked out at the end holding signs with letters that spelled out “Thank You Don” and “We [heart] You.”
At the March benefit dinner, family and friends told many stories — some true, some partially true — about the former police chief and firefighter that made people laugh to the point of tears. The love in the room was palpable and Winslow said he could feel it.
“I have my biological family, I have my family by marriage, my police department family, my Lamoine camping family, my fire department family, my FBI Academy family, my Sebec Lake family, and an extended family and circle of friends who are second to none,” he said.