Written by Tara Leonard
SANTA CRUZ (May 2011) - Stop by Derby Park in Santa Cruz on a sunny afternoon and you’ll find visitors of all ages whacking tennis balls, giggling on the playground, or busting ollies in one of the country’s oldest skateboard parks. But ask one of the helmeted daredevils where the park got its name and chances are you’ll get a blank stare. Jeanne Baker is out to change that. Baker is the daughter of the late Sergeant Charles Derby (1920-1972), a local policeman known for his work with the young people of Santa Cruz. Baker is working with local officials to have a plaque honoring her father installed at the park which bears his name.
“It’s important for future generations to realize that his love for kids is what spawned the whole idea of a place where they could be safe and have fun,” Baker said. “I can’t tell you how many people in this town have told me, ‘Your father kept me from being a juvenile delinquent!’”
Sergeant Derby’s even-handed response to the misadventures of rebellious teens was legendary. Just mention his name to locals of a certain age and they immediately grin, bursting into stories of their wayward youth.
“Sergeant Derby was a father figure for me,” said 61-year-old Rich Sanderson. “I struggled as a kid. I did stuff that drove him nuts! But he was more of a mentor than a policeman. Every time he caught me doing something wrong he counseled me and kept me out of worse trouble.”
Charles Derby was born in Waterloo, Iowa on November 22, 1920. His father died when he was 13 and Derby moved to Santa Cruz to live with his Aunt Mae. After attending Mission Hill Jr. High and Santa Cruz High School he went to the police academy and began as a motorcycle cop with the SCPD in the mid-1940s.
Sergeant Charles Derby in De Laveaga Park in 1950. Contributed photo.
“One of my oldest memories is of my father teaching our kindergarten class how to cross the street safely at Gault School,” Baker said. “That was in 1952. Having a child who loves you so much she’s climbing into your lap during class made him much more approachable for the other kids.”
Derby found his true calling when he began working with the Juvenile Branch. “He took the time to get involved in children’s lives,” recalled 60-year-old Pat Wright, a long-time Santa Cruz resident. Wright grew up with 11 siblings, including four brothers who came to know Sergeant Derby well. “He would bring Ray, Ernest or Charlie home in the police car for breaking windows or stealing penny candy and my mother would give him a cup of coffee and a piece of cake while they got the strap. Instead of giving you the ultimate punishment, he’d give you what you really needed. While you were cleaning up the mess, he’d give you a lecture to remember!”
On Christmas Eve Sergeant Derby would stop by the house with toys, food and candy. “I got my first bike from Sergeant Derby,” Charlie recalled. “He also took us boys camping one year.”
“Two of my brothers ended up in the ministry,” Wright continued. “I get teary eyed thinking that Sergeant Derby was the one who protected them from getting a record or getting into even more trouble. Every holiday, every time the family gets together we still talk about Sergeant Derby.”
“Pop always tried to take kids home and talk with their parents rather than arresting them,” Baker said, “He would find kids on the cusp and he’d invite them over to the house to play ping pong and drink root beer. He’d really take them under his wing.”
Sometimes it even worked the other way around, according to Sanderson. After his mother found him drinking under the Soquel Avenue Bridge, she marched him down to the police station herself. “Sergeant Derby threatened to put the hand cuffs on me right then,” he recalled with a smile. “He said if it happened again I was going straight to juvie. That sobered me up real quick. I don’t think I drank the rest of high school.”
But there were other youthful transgressions, like the time Sanderson and a pal scribbled graffiti on the old Riverside Hotel. They spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning it off, under the watchful eye of Sergeant Derby.
More memorable was the night Sanderson and some friends were walking home from a midnight show at the Rio Theater “just looking for trouble.” They dragged a huge sign into the middle of Seabright Avenue to watch the drunks drive over it. Eventually somebody called the police, who didn’t see the sign either, ran over it, swerved onto a front lawn and hit a tree. Nobody was hurt, but the police car was damaged and the boys scattered in a panic, hiding in bushes and behind wood piles, thinking, “Oh man, if we get caught we’re dead!”
Eventually most of the boys were rounded up and “the officer that had wrecked the car wanted to wring our necks!” Sanderson said with a laugh, “But Derby was the peace maker between us. He knew we were petrified. It was enough to keep me out of trouble for months!”
“There are few people in your life that affect you dramatically and Sergeant Derby was one of them,” Sanderson continued. “He always had the right solution for each kid. It was a gift.”
“Sergeant Derby really had the kids at heart,” said Laura Hamby of Mission Hill Jr. High, where Derby got to know many of the students by name. To this day, the Mission Hill PTA awards one graduating boy and one graduating girl the Sergeant Derby Award for outstanding citizenship. “It’s a nice plaque and recognition for students who are thoughtful, polite and help their fellow classmates.”
Derby Park is a 3.5. acre oasis on the Westside of Santa Cruz with tennis courts, picnic areas, a playground, and one of the country's oldest skateboard parks. Tara Leonard©santacruzwire.com
Derby was also in charge of firing instruction for the police department and instrumental in getting the firing range established in De Laveaga Park in 1961. Jeanne would go to the range with her father every Sunday after church so he could teach her to shoot. A prankster with a terrific sense of humor, he had a scam he liked to pull on the rookies.
“Pop would say, ‘I bet my kid here can outshoot you’ and I’d fumble around like I didn’t know what I was doing. He’d take fifty cent bets and then I’d hit a bull’s-eye! After that they’d really pay attention because they knew he could teach.” In 1972 the range was renamed the Charles Derby Small Bore Range.
Sergeant Derby worked at the Santa Cruz Police Department for 27 years, until his first heart attack, which happened on the job. A year later, after a second attack, Charles Derby died on February 17, 1972, at the far-too-young age of 51. At the time, the city was building a 3.5 acre neighborhood park behind the old Natural Bridges Elementary School on Swift Street, where Sergeant Derby had been a frequent visitor. They decided to name the park after their lost hero.
The plaque near the San Jose Avenue park entrance notes that Derby Park was dedicated on October 12, 1979. It includes the name of the current mayor, John Mahaney, as well as the city council members, city manager, parks and recreation director, and even the architect and construction firm involved in the park’s development. But there’s no mention of Sergeant Charles Derby.
“It’s a shame,” Baker said. “The whole idea of honoring him with something that big is to share a little something about him for future generations.”
‘There should definitely be some history there,” Wright agreed. “Even though he was only here for a short time, Sergeant Derby did more for people than most do in longer lives. He invested his life in others. If we could get all the people this man has touched in one place, the park wouldn’t be able to hold them all.”
Did you or someone you love know Sergeant Derby? Share your stories with readers in the comment section below.