Obituary: Richard R. Baer / Pine's first police chief

Aug. 6, 1929 - May 22, 2013

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Richard "Biff" Baer didn't finish college, or even his first year of college, at Slippery Rock University. Although he left partway through the second semester, he spent much of the rest of his life educating himself and learning skills as the police chief of what is now the Northern Regional Police Department.

Mr. Baer ultimately earned certificates from more than 30 universities and academies, including the Pennsylvania State Police Academy and the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., according to his wife, June Baer. But sitting at a desk just wasn't the right fit.

"He was a doer," Ms. Baer said. "He got involved in everything, and pretty much rose to the top in everything he did."

Mr. Baer, of Cochranton, Crawford County, died Wednesday of complications from pugilistic dementia, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, as a result of repeated blows to the head during his early boxing career that ultimately caused degeneration of brain tissue, his wife said. He was 83.

Born the son of John and Magdalena Schnitzius Baer, Mr. Baer grew up in the Deutchtown neighborhood of Spring Garden and attended North Catholic High School, which he left to join the Air Force in 1947. He later earned his general equivalency diploma.

In the service, Mr. Baer first worked as a clerk typist, then in providing security, while also boxing in Guam, Japan and stateside, his wife said. He won a Golden Gloves competition in his division in 1947 and also won an award during an Air Force boxing tournament, she said. He later continued boxing and training boxers at Jack Metz's gym in Lawrenceville.

After his discharge in 1950, Mr. Baer attended Slippery Rock to study physical education but withdrew during the second semester.

"It wasn't a good fit for him," his wife said. "He was a right-brainer -- they go off and find their own way."

Mr. Baer started driving trucks for meatpacking companies such as Armour, working three long days driving between Pittsburgh and Ohio and spending four days at home.

After Mr. Baer married in 1952, the couple started out living in his father's apartment house in Deutchtown but managed to save enough money to build their home in Pine in 1956.

There, Mr. Baer volunteered to work as the township's building inspector after no one else in town wanted the position. In 1960, he was offered a part-time position as a police officer -- Pine had a constable but no police department at the time -- that ultimately became a full-time position as police chief with one patrolman as Pine and other communities grew around the Route 19 corridor, Mrs. Baer said.

"Eventually they hired on more people and bought police cars and went on from there," she said, describing the creation of the Pine Township Police Department. "You do this and that and it just comes to you, and that's how it was -- everything just unfolded."

The department eventually merged with Marshall and Bradford Woods to become the Tri-Area Police Department, which later became the Northern Regional Police Department.

Mr. Baer had found his niche, his wife said, and he proved skilled in securing grants that helped pay for the department's expansion and improve its ability to work with other departments. And he thought regionally.

In addition to grants for new police cars, he secured a communication grant to combine radio frequencies with other departments. Frustrated at not being able to arrest someone in another jurisdiction, his wife said, Mr. Baer also ran for constable and was elected, giving him the ability to make arrests anywhere in Pennsylvania.

"Crimes don't just happen in one community," Mrs. Baer said. "They travel all over, and that bothered him a lot."

In 1965, Mr. Baer attended a three-month training course at the state police academy in an effort to improve his law enforcement skills, she said. And in 1968, the FBI Academy waived its usual requirement of a college degree so that he could attend its three-month course as well.

In an effort to improve law enforcement training, Mr. Baer helped push through the state's police mandatory training bill. In 1975, he also won Allegheny County commissioners' support and funding to build the police academy in North Park.

"When he became a policeman, they pinned a badge on him and gave him a gun," Mrs. Baer said. "He said there's got to be more to it than that -- you have to have training."

Mr. Baer continued working as the Tri-Area chief until his retirement in 1988, when the couple moved to Cochranton.

There, he loved fishing in a stream near their home and hunting on his own property. But Mrs. Baer said he never quite retired, working part time as a detective in Cochranton and as a constable for nearby Fairfield, until his dementia symptoms emerged four years ago.

"He had a good time on the face of this Earth, and we're just sorry he's gone," she said. "It leaves a huge hole."

Mr. Baer was the president of the North Hills Police Association; the Allegheny County, Western Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania chiefs of police associations; and the FBI National Academy Associates. He also was a life member of the Knights of Columbus and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 91, and held offices in the VFW and the American Legion.

He also was boxing commissioner during the administration of former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

Mr. Baer is survived by his wife and five children, Susan Cherbonneau, Pamela Calder, Richard Baer, Cristine Courter and Carole Helch; and his brother, Bill Baer. His funeral will be held at Simons Funeral Home in McCandless at 8:30 this morning, followed by a Mass in St. Alphonsus Church in Pine. Interment will be private.

obituaries

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com


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