Mikel Hollaway slowly rose, walked four deliberate steps to the podium and put his mouth to the microphone.
He had just accepted a new job. Hollaway was now officially Sarasota’s police chief.
It’s a ceremony that has taken place countless times in countless cities.
But Hollaway’s acceptance speech was different. He didn’t cite his career accomplishments or immediately tick off the steps he would take to leave his mark on the department.
Instead, he recognized people close to him — his parents and other mentors.
“I want to thank my mother and father for molding me into the person I am today,” he said. “I want to thank all the role models who have helped mold me.”
Elmore Mitchell, Linford Reed, Ozzie Singleton, John Rivers — all were men whom Hollaway considered his guides and who lived in Hollaway’s north Sarasota neighborhood.
Two teachers also got special recognition: Arthur Johnson and John Buckley, both of Tuttle Elementary School.
Most of those people are now dead, including Hollaway’s father, who died last year.
“Without those folks, I wouldn’t be here,” said Hollaway. “My life’s a success, and they all had a part.”
Growing up in the 1970s in Newtown wasn’t easy. Poverty, drugs and crime claimed many of the families there.
Hollaway said without the guidance of his parents and other adults in his community, he may have met the same fate as other children he knew.
“I’d probably be dead or in jail,” he said matter-of-factly.
It takes a village
All the families near his boyhood home on 25th Street knew each other and watched out for each other’s children.
“Some of the kids didn’t get the right direction, and they succumbed to peer pressure,” Hollaway said. “If you don’t have the right guidance, you’re not going to make the right decision.”
Although many left their mark on Hollaway, he, in turn, left his mark as well.
Buckley, Hollaway’s fifth-grade teacher at Tuttle Elementary, said he didn’t believe the chief would ever have ended up as anything but successful.
“Mikel stood out,” he said. “He was well-dressed, polite and respectful with everyone.”
Buckley, 69, taught Hollaway in 1970. After three weeks in his class, he thought Hollaway was so remarkable that he went to his home to find out what was influencing him.
“I wanted to find out why,” said Buckley. “After I got there, it was obvious. His parents were kind and respectful, and the house was spotless. I told them, ‘You’re doing the job parents are supposed to do.’”
In his 47 years of teaching, Hollaway was one of his three best students, said Buckley.
“He was the kind of person you wish your son was,” he said. “I love him to this day.”
One experience in the fourth grade had a profound effect on Hollaway.
It was during a spelling bee. The class was split in two. The teams were tied, and it was down to the last word. A girl on Hollaway’s team was up; she was not the best speller in the class.
“I blurted out, ‘We’re going to lose, because she can’t spell anything right,’” Hollaway says.
But the girl did spell the word correctly. Hollaway had to apologize to her and stay inside, while the rest of the class went out for recess.
“I bawled my eyes out,” he said.
Fourth-grade teacher Johnson walked up to him, put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Son, it’s O.K. You apologized. It takes a man to apologize when he’s wrong. Now go outside and play.”
“I have never, ever forgotten that to this day,” Hollaway said. “When I’m wrong, I admit it.”
Many times it was the fear of disappointing his parents that kept him in line.
“My upbringing helped me make the right decisions,” he said. “When I was faced with a tough decision, I would think, ‘If I make the wrong one, how will it affect me or my loved ones?’ There was always a line I wouldn’t cross because of that.”
Hollaway wasn’t an A-plus student but still achieved good grades.
“I was always kind of quiet,” he recalls. “I realized if you studied hard, you’d do well. I never got into trouble and always stuck up for the underdog.”
Upon graduating in 1978 from Sarasota High School, Hollaway went away to college, and studied business management at Florida State University.
That’s where he met his wife of 26 years.
“I walked into the student union, saw her and that was it,” he laughs. “I got lucky.”
All of the lessons learned during his childhood have helped him raise intelligent and productive children of his own.
His oldest daughter graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy this summer. His middle son is a junior at Florida A&M University, and his youngest son, is a senior at Booker High School.
“I try looking back at how my parents raised me, and I try to do the same things for my kids,” he said.
Finances forced Hollaway to leave college eight credit hours short of receiving his diploma, but without that twist of fate, he believes he never would have become a police officer.
“I’d probably be working for a corporation or owning a business,” he said.
It was his mother’s chance conversation with a city recruiter that convinced him to try police work.
Hollaway is not only the city’s first minority police chief, but also its first African-American sergeant, lieutenant and captain.
“Being a police officer has allowed me to make a difference,” he said.
The decision to accept the permanent chief’s position was not an automatic one for Hollaway. He didn’t submit his application until just a few hours before the deadline to apply.
A changing attitude toward police officers is part of the reason why.
“Policing is a young man’s game,” Hollaway said. “That’s why you see so many officers retiring after 25 years. Chasing, fighting, stress and midnight shifts take a toll.”
Hollaway’s middle son is studying criminal justice and could follow in his father’s footsteps, but that’s not what Hollaway wants.
“Times have changed. Society has changed,” he said. “There’s less respect for law enforcement and no real respect for authority anymore. People are more violent.”
When talking about how he wishes police officers were treated today, he cites two old television shows.
“Look at a show like ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” he said. “It might be a TV show, but being a lawman used to mean something. Look at ‘Gunsmoke.’ (Marshal) Matt Dillon was stern, but fair. Both shows had something in common — communities that trusted (law enforcement). When I leave (the police department), I want to leave the same thing behind.”
If You Go
The city will hold a swearing-in ceremony for Chief Mikel Hollaway at 11 a.m. Monday, Oct. 4, in the second-floor community room of the new police headquarters at 2099 Adams Lane.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].