Cops And BobbersCops And Bobbers
Mike Carpenter's passion for fishing, coupled with his compassion for youngsters, changed lives and built a legacy of giving
By Clay Walker
Gone Too Soon
The world would be a better place if there were more people like Mike Carpenter. I know of nobody who knew him that would disagree with me. What a wonderful legacy to leave. Mike passed away doing what he loved to do - promoting fishing.
-- Brian G. Sayner
The city of Paducah, Ky., may not conjure up thoughts of street gangs and drive-by shootings, but the river city has its mean streets and its share of poverty. When Mike Carpenter followed his lifelong dream of being a police officer more than a decade ago, he found himself assigned to some of the town's most downtrodden areas. The children he encountered there were initially resistant to his attempts to reach out to them and help them make the right decisions with their lives; after all, a policeman was not generally thought of as being a "good guy" in these neighborhoods.
It was a policeman who came to their doors to let the family know when a relative had been shot. It was a policeman who had arrested a cousin, a brother, or even their father. It was a policeman who would interrogate them when a crime had been committed. In their eyes, it was difficult to trust a policeman.
Over time, the determined Carpenter began to establish positive relationships with some of the youngsters. But when he told them some of the things he enjoyed, once again he became an outsider. Although Carpenter didn't really expect city kids to share his passion for fishing, he was surprised to learn that almost none of them had ever even seen scenic Kentucky Lake, just 20 miles from downtown Paducah. When he shared this fact with his good friend John Parks, who is a McCracken County deputy sheriff, Cops and Bobbers was born.
The two men began plans for a fishing tournament to not only broaden the horizons of some inner city kids, but for the public relations benefits it would have in their neighborhoods as well as the pure pleasure that comes from watching a child catch his first fish.
"These kids are not afforded the same opportunities as lots of other kids," Parks said. "Sometimes these kids end up in trouble because they don't know any better and they think they don't have alternatives."
Carpenter began talking to school guidance counselors and neighborhood leaders to identify children who might benefit the most from such an outing. He and Parks began seeking funding, going door to door to raise money for equipment and other expenses needed for even the smallest fishing tournament. In 1994, the first Cops and Bobbers tournament was held and about a dozen youngsters enjoyed the serenity of the nearby lake, the excitement of catching a fish and the self-esteem of spending an entire day with a grown man - who just happened to be a law officer - that would listen to them and take an interest in what was going on in their lives.
"We're not doing this for the kids who live in the middle class suburbs, have their moms taking them to soccer practice and go fishing with their dads on the weekends," Parks said. "Those kids are getting what they need. This is for kids who need some attention, who need to spend a day with an adult who actually cares about what they think and what's going to happen to them as they go through life."
It had only been a few years prior to the first Cops and Bobbers event when Carpenter met a young mother at a singles group at Paducah's First Baptist Church. Carpenter had been working as a bricklayer in nearby Princeton, Ky., but had moved to Paducah when he was contracted to work on a new mall. Although he had made many friends through his work and the karate class he taught at the church, it was Sharon that caught his attention.
He told her about the things he enjoyed in life, about his interests such as hunting and archery, in which he had won several state competitions. He also told her of his lifelong desire to be a policeman. She encouraged him to follow that dream. It wasn't long before he was learning what it was like to be a cop - and Sharon was learning how to be a cop's wife.
Carpenter, who had a daughter, Tamby, from his previous marriage, adopted Sharon's son, Shannon. Tamby Sweet is now married with a stepdaughter and 2-year-old son, and Shannon is attending the University of Kentucky. With the rigors of police work taking its normal toll on Carpenter, he found some measure of relaxation and solitude with his reel repair business. But it was the children who lacked a family like the one he had built that seemed to mean the most to Carpenter.
"When he started working at Elmwood Court, he would come home and tell me about all of the kids without both parents, and sometimes either parent, around," Sharon recalls. "He would give them candy and talk to them. He really tried to help steer them in the right direction. He even started a scouting group there."
As more and more children became aware of Cops and Bobbers, Parks and Carpenter had to work harder and smarter to fund the tournament that they scheduled each fall. For a time they associated with a hospital near the lake, but according to Parks, the hospital tried to take too much control of the event. He and Carpenter discontinued the association.
In need of a non-profit organization to serve as a kind of administrative body over the tournament, they turned to the Fraternal Order of Police. That lead them to Jan Flowers, a retired police officer from Chicago. Flowers had retired from police work and moved to Kentucky Lake where he purchased Bear Creek Boat Works. He lent his support to the cause.
In the beginning, the tournament was held in conjunction with a local bass fishing tournament. The children, each paired with a police officer, would fish from the banks of the lake. They weighed their fish in and trophies were awarded. As the tournament grew over the next decade and a half, area guides donated the use of boats so officers, like Parks and Carpenter, could give many a youngster his or her first boat ride.
They also found a charity to help underwrite any shortcomings in the budget - Ronald McDonald's House Charities. Dunn's Sporting Goods in Paducah donates rods and reels and tackle for the kids, allowing them to keep the equipment. Many of the participants later put them to good use on local ponds or the nearby Ohio River. Ranger Boats and Operation Bass supply caps and T- shirts and Wal-Mart donates tackle to the cause.
Parks has even received inquiries lately from other groups who are looking to start such a program and want advice on how to get things up and running.
The Jeanette Story Outdoor Sports and Boat Show has been growing by leaps and bounds in Murray, Ky., 45 miles from Paducah. Held at Murray State University's Regional Special Events Center, hundreds of exhibitors show up each year, from major boat manufacturers to area custom rod and reel makers - such as Carpenter. Not only could Carpenter spend the day talking fishing, he could make some contacts that could bring something to the table for Cops and Bobbers and maybe even pick up a few rod and reel customers, to "finance my habit" as he liked to say.
But at the 2000 show in January, Carpenter suffered a fatal heart attack while setting up his booth. He was 53.
Sharon is back to work in the loan department at Union Planters Bank, getting by with the help of her coworkers, the Paducah Police Department and several of the friends her husband had made through fishing. She has difficult moments, like when she reflects on how much he was looking forward to taking his grandson on his first fishing trip, but she is surviving "a day at a time."
Parks and the growing number of volunteers continue to run the Cops and Bobbers tournament. They have renamed the event the "Mike Carpenter Memorial Cops & Bobbers Tournament". Future generations of kids who are introduced to fishing, who learn that the men and women in blue are their friends, and that there are people in this world who care about and believe in them will never know the man who opened this door, but they will know his name.
Content provided by Bass Fishing Magazine, the official publication of FLW Outdoors
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