WALKER — For 20 years, a Cass County Sheriff’s dispatcher has been the voice of calm in chaotic situations.
People, many of whom he’s never met and never will, know him by his distinctive voice and his first name alone — George.
“Everybody knows who he is,” said Cass County Chief Deputy Erick Hoglund. “They may never have seen him but they know him. He’s a rock star.”
George Martin had the right combination for an extremely stressful job — even-keeled and level-headed through good times and bad, from minor problems to major crimes. His immediately recognizable voice carried the message to people, often in turmoil, that help was on the way. Martin said he tried to live by the motto of treating people the way he wanted to be treated during his career.
“He’s a unique fella,” said Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch. “You really need a unique person to do that job.”
But Thursday, Martin, completed his last shift in the dispatch center. At 61, the Backus resident said he’s ready to try something else. At the sheriff’s office, Burch said they are reluctantly letting him go to lead a Sentencing to Service crew.
“We don’t want to replace him,” Burch said of Martin. “He’s kind of been our voice for a long, long time.”
Martin is quick to dismiss his status and the impact of his voice. But the people he works with can point to story after story. There’s the man who called in to report a theft, saying after hearing Martin for years he was finally in a position to actually speak to him. Out in public, people recognized him by his voice alone, asking him to speak over their phones to confirm the meeting to their friends.
Throughout his career, day in and day out in a windowless, dimly lit room surrounded by multiple computer screens, Martin had the ability to treat people fairly and in a friendly manner, keeping in mind their concerns and needs, Burch said. Even if they were one of the many repeat callers with battered lives who are seeking a sympathetic ear — as much to be listened to as to get help.
Now those years of experience will depart with Martin. He was in the dispatch center when directions to places came with phrases like “turn right at the big rock.”
Martin’s even tones, which Chief Deputy Erick Hoglund described as distinctive as actor Morgan Freeman’s voice, created a sense of composure even as he juggled multiple things.
On his last day, he had a person receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation on one line and an assault on the other. In a half hour the phone may ring once or 75 times.
“This job isn’t for everybody,” Martin said and laughed. “Look at my hair — it’s gone.”
And on the other end are emergency personnel looking for critical answers dispatchers only have seconds to obtain. The caller reporting a violent assault or its aftermath may not be on the 911 call for long and part of the dispatcher’s role is to assess the potential danger for emergency responders. After decades on the job, Martin learned to assess situations based on what he could hear in the background or from the tension in a deputy’s voice while out on patrol.
The stress of the job or the lingering moments from an emergency call are things that can follow a dispatcher home after the work shift. Martin said on those bad days, Carole, his wife of 37 years, understands. The couple had one daughter who became a school teacher and now have grandchildren as well.
But the fact that Martin was in Cass County handling emergency calls at all was, perhaps, unexpected.
He was born and raised in southern California, in Los Angeles. He grew up with the beach, a little surfing, but more basketball and football during his teen years. He went to the same high school at the Beach Boys. Martin spent a decade as a supervisor for a utilities division at a Chevron oil refinery by Los Angeles International Airport.
His wife’s family provided the Minnesota connection. Martin said he fell in love with the area and they decided to raise their young daughter here. Family and friends were either incredulous or envious. Arriving in Minnesota, Martin bought Deer Haven Super Club south of Remer and ran it for three years.
Burch told Martin about the dispatcher opening so he applied. The future sheriff thought Martin had the right personality for the job. While Martin’s been in the dispatcher chair, a lot of others have come and gone.
The calls that stick with Martin are the ones from spouses who have been married forever and wake up to find their husband or wife passed away in the night. On the other end of the phone is the reassuring voice saying: “I’m going to get somebody out there to help you.”
“Those calls can be tough,” Martin said. “I feel for those people.”
There were the tragic crashes, sometimes with victims he knew personally. Martin vividly remembers working on the Rachel Anthony murder case. And there was the 3-year-old girl who called asking for help for her mother, spoke like an adult and gave startling accurate and detailed directions to her home. Her mother was in anaphylactic shock. Medical staff said her mother only had minutes to live. That 3-year-old is now a high school graduate.
Martin found his own outlets in golf, which might appear less relaxing than another endeavor. But Martin says it has its points. “I don’t have to answer the phone.” In the winter, he went snowmobiling. His appearance changed over the years, but it took awhile for co-workers to recognize him after he lost 130 pounds. Martin said he’s more active today than 20 years ago.
Pauline Fahey, administrative assistant, wasn’t looking forward to working without Martin nearby.
“It’s a good day when George is working in there,” she said of the man she called her mentor. “George is the best.”
What makes a good dispatcher? Common sense and a little life experience, Martin said.
“You have to care about people,” he said. “They are depending on you for something. You are not allowed any mistakes — it may cost somebody their life.”
Martin said he’ll miss talking to people, but he’s looking forward to being outside after spending so many hours of his working life in a windowless room.
For those who have marked their days hearing his voice, it’s will undoubtedly be an adjustment to no longer hear — “Cass County, this is George.”
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.