HED: Top patrolman gets rude shove
By Bill Minor
JACKSON - When Pete Collins, wearing his beloved Mississippi Highway Patrol grey and red uniform, delivered around the country his inspiring message for saving young lives on the highways, audiences young and old, black and white, were profoundly moved.
Collins, a 25-year veteran of the MHP, dramatically changed the image of Mississippi troopers as club-wielding cops of the 1960s in the minds of thousands of Americans.
But two weeks ago Collins, who at age 52 still had a lot of miles to go preaching his safety message, was unceremoniously turned out to pasture and higher-ups at the Highway Patrol didn't seem to care. The whole business of his sudden departure smacks of an old J. Edgar Hoover trick for lopping off heads of underlings who displeased him.
Significantly, Collins' boss at MHP for the past six years has been Commissioner Jim Ingram, the former FBI agent who learned from the masterHooverhow to let everyone under him know who's boss, and don't upstage the boss.
Ingram, whom I've known since the civil rights days when he was with the Jackson office of the FBI, claims that Collins wasn't run off. He charges the officer didn't spend enough time working at the MHP headquarters because he was traveling around making speeches too often.
Plus, Ingram contends, Collins had turned his safety speaking career into "a business" and was creating a morale problem among other troopers. "Pete took retirement and we wish him well," said Ingram, "I definitely exerted no pressure (on him)."
Collins admits the retirement was his own decision, but it's clear he made that decision only after it became evident the Patrol higher-ups didn't want him around any more.
"They used me and then they threw me away," Collins told me reluctantly only after I contacted him when a friend told me how he had been ignominiously dispatched.
His last day as a patrolman was classic in callousness. After taking two days leave to think about his future, Collins received a call from a superior amounting to an ultimatum to decide immediately on whether or not he was going to retire. If so, he was told to turn in his equipment and be out the door by 5 p.m.
None of his superiors, Ingram included, came by to see Collins or urge him to reconsider. After turning in his equipment, Collins drove his patrol car for the last time to MHP's shop and surrendered the keys.
No matter that in his long career he was widely acclaimed as an outstanding representative of the state's highway safety organization, no one offered him a ride home and he had to take a Yellow Cab.
For 19 years, Collins, a self-trained speaker, had built a remarkable reputation across Mississippi and throughout the nation as an advocate for saving lives on the highway, especially aimed at young people. His message in later years was broadened to educate against drug and alcohol abuse by youngsters.
With homespun humor and a special gift for relating his audiences to the tragic consequences of unsafe driving, his appeal had untold impact for saving lives in the estimation of those who long observed him.
Collins had been asked to speak, mostly at high schools, in 47 states and even abroad for the U.S. military. By his calculation, since he began giving his safety message, he had spoken to 9.5 million people around the world.
Not long after he started to speak at schools in the vicinity of Starkville where he was based in the early 1970s, it became widely known around the state that he was an especially effective speaker and invitations began to pour in.
His first major speaking sortie outside the state poetically was to a Detroit inner-city high school around 1980. Collins recalls finding himself as the only white person in a room-full of 1000 students and teachers, forewarned by the school principal that as a white officer from Mississippi it would be risky as to how he would be received.
"I told them first off I was not there to tell them how to live, only that I was an expert in watching people die from accidents on the highway, where white or black, your blood runs red," Collins recalls. Suddenly students stopped shuffling papers and books and the murmuring halted as the youngsters began paying rapt attention.
"I realized they didn't care where I came from or what I was, but only that I cared," he said, adding that he has been invited back to speak at the school several times since.
Ingram's alluding to Collins' business interests evidently was a reference to Domino's Pizza picking up expenses of the patrolman's out-of-state appearances, starting in 1985. Until then, Collins had been paying his own expenses to make talks. An owner of Domino's who lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast heard Collins that year and was so moved he offered to subsidize him for traveling to give his message to young people. Also he would pay Collins when he spoke at meetings of Domino's employees.
Collins emphasizes that in all of his career he "never made any money off the State of Mississippi" for his speaking engagements. He added, "I could have left a long time ago and made a lot of money, but I stayed with the Highway Patrol, wearing its uniform, because I wanted to let people outside of Mississippi know we're not back in the old days."
Ingram's attitude toward Collins evidently began to change as a result of something that happened in the 1997 session of the state Legislature when a bill to raise Ingram's salary by $10,000 along with raises for top officers at the Patrol was under consideration.
State Rep. Jerome Huskey of Monroe County, who died before the bill finally passed, asked for a specific provision that Collins be raised to the rank of captain.
The rider inserted for Collins' promotion infuriated Ingram (Ingram admits he voiced his opposition to lawmakers) even though Collins vows he neither sought nor wanted to be promoted to a captain.
No doubt, Collins' popularity as an inspirational safety speaker made him the most visible state highway patrolman. Sometimes celebrity comes at a price.
Bill Minor, a syndicated columnist, has covered Mississippi politics for 50 years.