GALLATIN GATEWAY – After pestering the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office for months in 1975, Jim Cashell finally got the call he’d been waiting for.

It was just six months after he’d married Diane Cashell. He was working two delivery jobs and getting about three hours of sleep each night. But Jim told Undersheriff Carl Smith he could come in for an interview right away.

Jim hopped on his bicycle and rode to the sheriff’s office on Main Street from his student housing on the Montana State University campus.

At his interview, Jim was asked two questions: “Are you willing to cut your hair and shave your mustache?” and “When can you start?”

His hair was shoulder length at the time, but he said he’d cut it and that he could start work that afternoon.

“They said, ‘We’ll let you know,’” Jim said in an interview from his Gallatin Gateway home.

The phone was ringing when he got home. Sgt. Lester Gee asked Jim if he could report at 4 p.m.

“I said, ‘I’ll be there, but I won’t have my hair cut,’” Jim said.

Thirty-seven years later, Jim, 58, retired as Gallatin County sheriff Friday, Dec. 30.

Tales to tell

Any law enforcement agent with a career spanning more than three decades has tales to tell.

Take April 25, 1977, for example.

Three Montana State Prison fugitives were rumored to be in Bozeman and, in fact, two were. After smashing into Jim’s cruiser, the fugitives led officers on a chase down North Seventh Avenue and past the high school with students lining the streets. The pursuit ended downtown when Jim and another officer surrounded the convicts’ Ford Torino.

“I go back to the office and I’m shaking,” said Jim, who was a rookie deputy at the time. “I can’t even drink a can of pop.”

Jim’s bosses sent him home, but there is another reason he recalls that date.

“I’m sitting at the kitchen table with Diane,” he said. “She says, ‘My water broke,’ and we went to the hospital and Sean was born” the next morning.

“That was a tough day,” Diane said. “That was a real tough day.”

But Diane said she was never worried about her husband because he’s able to de-escalate volatile situations with a human approach, not an authoritative one.

“I never did have a fear,” she said. “He is a very skilled and very intelligent man who assesses every situation and acts accordingly.”

And it’s the same with the deputies he’s hired who “think and respond in a compassionate way,” she added.

“Role model isn’t a strong enough word,” said Matthew Cashell, Jim’s son and a detective with the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office. “He casts a big shadow for a guy who’s just 5-foot-7. It’s tough to follow that act, but I’ll do my best. I’m very proud of him.”

Gallatin County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Jarrett said Jim built a really good sheriff’s office.

“He’s a good man,” Jarrett said. “The quality of life we enjoy in Gallatin County is in no small part due to Jim Cashell. He had a lot to do with that because of his community involvement, his work ethic and community activism.”

Belgrade Police Chief E.J. Clark said Jim has lots of knowledge.

“With his absence, there are big shoes to fill,” Clark said.

What he learned in jail

In 1991, Jim was promoted to sergeant and appointed jail administrator.

“That was one of the single best things that happened to me in my career,” he said. “Everyone that’s in there has a story. Everyone in there has a family. That’s where you learn to treat people well.”

Former Sheriff Bill Slaughter appointed Jim undersheriff in 1999 and in 2001, Gallatin County commissioners appointed Jim sheriff. Since then voters have elected him to the post three times.

Law enforcement hasn’t always been easy.

Jim once helped a woman who was crushed when she was thrown from a vehicle in a crash on Norris Road.

“I sat there with her, and she was dying and she was telling me about dying,” he said. “She knew she was dying, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do for her.

“That’s where you get your way of doing things,” Jim said. “She was a brave lady. People like that are inspirational. Those things, they matter.”

‘I earned it’

Born and raised the oldest of five in Butte, Jim went to Catholic schools where he was perhaps a bit too energetic for at least one nun’s classroom.

“In today’s world I’d probably be on medication,” he said.

“A nun told me, ‘Jimmy Cashell, if you don’t change your ways, you’re gonna end up dead or in jail,’” Jim said. “I always wanted to go back and tell her she was half right.”

Jim’s Butte neighbor gave him three pieces of advice.

“Keep a scrapbook, no matter what, good, bad, indifferent,” Jim said. “Every once in awhile go look at it. You have to show yourself what you’ve done.

“Make sure most of your friends are not in law enforcement,” he said. “If all your friends do nothing but what you do every day, you get a little jaded and begin to see all the negative in the world.

“Remember that in this business, you’re dealing with people. The day that you forget that, you go do something different. And that’s the most important one because if you do (forget), you lose your effectiveness as a cop.

“But that’s not why I retired,” he added. “I still love what I do, what I did. It’s more of you just know it’s time. Am I gonna miss it? Damn right, I’m gonna miss it.”

But as Jim drives over the hill to his home glimpsing the mountains of Gallatin Canyon, he will no longer have to ponder the huge responsibility of being sheriff, although he’ll keep the title.

“That’s the thing about being sheriff,” Jim said. “You’re never not the sheriff. The title is still mine and I earned it. I’m good with that.”

Jodi Hausen can be reached at jhausen@dailychronicle.com or 582-2630.

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