WATFORD CITY — Ron Rankin knew that Monday he wouldn’t get to eat his cake and have it, too.
There would be a party for him at the McKenzie County Courthouse — the decorated cake, sugary punch and glad-handing all around — and then he’d be officially out the door.
He’s been sheriff for seven years, a Watford City police officer for 22 years and a force for good that whole time.
Rankin, 67, isn’t leaving because he wants to, or because the voters want him gone.
He’s been battling a myeloma bone and blood cancer for three years and while he’s got it pretty well handcuffed with medications, he doesn’t have it beat.
“By noon, I’m played out,” Rankin said Friday, his last day in office other than the farewells.
It’s getting harder to concentrate. In the roiling mass of activity that’s now McKenzie County — 73 rigs drilling and thousands of oil workers in towns and camps — the job doesn’t cut anyone any slack.
He’d keep at it through the term entrusted to him, but the idea of “collecting a paycheck and doing a half-ass job” just wouldn’t be right, he said.
Instead, he’ll turn the job over to another good man, Deputy John Fulwider, and live it up while the living’s good in a gentler green space in Washington.
“The hard part of leaving is that I won’t be a member of the club anymore,” he said.
Members of that elite club are the men and women in blue who run toward trouble, lights flashing, to help the public.
In McKenzie County there are some 1,000 incidents a month that require a cop on scene and there have been some horrific and deadly ones in recent years. There have been 300 accidents on the highways and county roads and 10 fatalities so far this year.
“The workload is unexpectedly phenomenal,” Rankin said.
The incidents don’t include all the paperwork for a majority share of the 2,000 criminal and traffic court appearances every month generated by his officers.
There are 50 registered sex offenders in the county and a new level of violence, domestic issues, assaults and rape. It isn’t 1984 anymore.
Through it all, he’s been the eye in the hurricane of change.
“He’s been managing a crisis and he’s been super,” said McKenzie County Commission Chairman Ron Anderson. “I wish he could continue.”
Those words, or similar ones, are said by county emergency manager Jerry Samuelson.
“He’s not arrogant. He has a calming effect. He defuses a situation rather than makes it worse,” Samuelson said. “He did a darned good job of handling all this at once.”
Rankin pulled into McKenzie County back in 1984, years when people couldn’t get out of the oil bust fast enough. U-Hauls were rolling down the highway. He’d finished a military career in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and stopped in for an interview on his way to a job possibility in Washington state.
He liked the town and took a job on the city police force, where he remained until winning the sheriff’s job in 2006.
It didn’t occur to him that he’d be the single African American in the county — one lone checkmark in the census column — and the extreme whiteness of his surroundings took a while to sink in.
“At first it was a shock, but I never felt more at home any place I’ve ever been,” he said.
His legacy isn’t for singlehandedly breaking the color barrier — he made it irrelevant, really — though he deserves some credit for that.
He’ll be remembered for his even-handedness and for his devotion to the town’s young people.
He served as Scout leader and started up a flag football program.
Rankin said his proudest moment in a career of crisis and criminal management was about those kids. It happened when he was dealing with complaints from the public about all those skateboarders on sidewalks and streets in town.
“The kids were complaining there was nothing to do and everyone was chasing them off their property. So I told them to get all their friends and meet me over by the pool. We talked about a skate place and I said, ‘Let’s make one,’ and now there is one. They, the kids did that, and the adults worked with the kids,” he said.
His worst hour was the killing of fellow officer Keith Braddock, who was gunned down at the age of 39 by a local rancher in a hostage situation at a bar in town. The shooter was imprisoned in 1996, but the memories still hurt.
“I’ve rehashed that so many times and there’s nothing I could have done. I was his daughter’s godfather. We weren’t prepared for that,” he said.
And there was the fatality in a house fire and the wondering and wondering if there would have been time, or a way to get through the choking smoke and flames to save that life.
“You question yourself if there were some things you could have done better,” he said.
As he leaves the job and McKenzie County, Rankin wishes he were leaving behind 14 deputies instead of nine, and that every potential speeding driver who entered the county were met with the sight of a patrol car.
That’s a strong message in a place where speed is a frequent killer, he said.
“Over the next year, it’s only going to get busier. There will be no decrease in activity for years to come,” he said.
When he packs up the house and he and his wife head down the highway, this ex-Marine and friend of children will take a long, fond look in the rear view mirror.
“I’ve traveled all over the world and I have honestly never met more friendly people or felt so welcome anywhere,” he said.