The Rev. Robert “Bob” Denton will always remember the sound of a bag piper and the voice of a frightened little boy.
The boy’s father was murdered by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, formerly of Bath Township, and Denton was in Milwaukee to help the families and the community after the arrest and the discovery of bodies of victims.
“When is Daddy coming home?” is the chilling line that Denton, who has counseled and advocated on behalf of victims for four decades, remembers most vividly.
The bag piper played at the funerals of two policemen killed in the line of duty in Florida.
“I go back there,” said Denton, as he remembers the widow of one of the policemen wearing the dress she had worn several months earlier when they were married. The song was Amazing Grace.
On the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Victim Assistance Program in Akron, Denton, who turned 69 on Saturday, has been thinking about all that he has seen and heard and felt during his career.
Denton, an ordained minister, police academy graduate and police chaplain, Ph.D. sociologist and adjunct professor in the sociology department at the University of Akron, will step down as executive director of the Victim Assistance Program in December. He will take over as the first full-time executive director of the Safety Forces Chaplaincy Center.
The center is located inside the Furnace Street Mission, the church his father, the late Rev. William “Bill” Denton started in 1926.
Denton, a Buchtel High School graduate, graduated from the Akron Police Academy in 1972, received his undergraduate degree in philosophy and religion at Asbury College, his master’s in theology from Wheaton Graduate School of Theology, and his doctorate in social welfare from the School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.
The Akron police chaplain is coming full circle as he prepares to leave the program he founded to begin working at the chaplaincy center.
The Victim Assistance Program, housed in a former halfway house for ex-offenders, was mapped out in a meeting between Denton and law enforcement and probation officials at a restaurant in 1972.
The principal ideas of what the cutting-edge agency would do were drawn up on a paper napkin.
By 1973, Denton, then the only staff member of the newly formed agency, along with volunteers, worked on 103 cases. The next year, the growing agency worked with victims in about 1,000 cases.
For the most recent year, the agency with 17 full and part-time staff members, worked with 17,000 people in connection with 6,700 crimes.
The agency operates on a budget of about $750,000 coming from federal, state and local governments, foundations, donations and some fundraisers.
Victims do not pay for services received.
The Victim Assistance Program was the first victim assistance agency in Ohio and was on the cusp of the national victim advocacy movement that led to state and federal laws to help victims across the country. Denton was the first president of the National Organization for Victim Assistance.
He has learned that people ask lots of questions after family members are murdered or injured in a crime, or when they are victims of crime.
“We are meaning creatures,” he said. “Our brains ask not just what happened, but why? We really see it with homicide. Someone is going to say, ‘Am I going to see my kid again?’ ‘Do people live after they die?’ ‘How could God let this happen?’ ”
Other questions that come up, Denton said, “‘Is it a fair universe?’ ‘Does it pay to do good things?’ ”
The system, Denton said, “doesn’t seem to work all the time. We look at victims — the survivors — and the perp gets the needle. Some feel better and some don’t.”
Denton has taken part in counseling efforts following many national tragedies during his career, including the Dahmer killings; the pain in the wake of a series of murders in Gainesville, Fla.; a church bus crash in Kentucky that killed 27 people, mostly children; the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building; the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado; Hurricane Andrew; and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He and his agency helped in the aftermath of the Copley Township shootings of 2011.
In Milwaukee, when the victims of Dahmer, a Revere High School graduate, were being unloaded from the crime scene in large canisters, a mother told him she was sure her son was in one of the canisters. It was then the little boy approached about his father.
“It was his dad,” Denton said.
And he was in Palm Bay, Fla., after a gunman killed six including two police officers, and wounded more than a dozen in the spring of 1987.
Denton remembers riding to the funerals of the two slain policemen with one of their fellow officers.
The policeman told Denton he saw the suspect ditch his gun after the bloodbath was over.
“Would you have shot him anyway?” the grieving policeman asked Denton.
“I didn’t have an answer,” Denton said. “He could have done it and nobody but God would have known.”
It was a double funeral, Denton remembered.
The picture in his mind is of the widow of one of the policemen wearing her pink wedding dress. Then there was the bag piper playing Amazing Grace.
“That one hurts,” he said.
In July 2008, after Twinsburg police office Joshua Miktarian was killed in the line of duty, Denton spent two seven-hour evenings listening to Miktarian’s fellow officers speak their hearts in counseling sessions.
“That was the turning point,” Denton said of when he decided he really wanted to work with police officers and all safety forces that led to his decision to make the move in January.
He spoke to his wife, Marian Denton, about his feelings that he would like to ultimately work full time with law enforcement officers.
“This is where I need to be,” he said. “My idea of God’s will is you never know what it is until you look in the rearview mirror.”
One of the first things he wants to do on the new job is reach out to find retired police officers and firefighters.
He calls them people “who disappear.”
Denton and two retired Akron police chiefs, Craig Gilbride and Gus Hall, will work on the project to reach out to those retired officers who may have isolated themselves or may be facing depression.
What he has done for the last 40 years has been a calling, he said.
It was always rewarding to know that even after horrible and often unspeakable things have happened in the lives of people the agency served — help was waiting.
“It is not easy to leave something you’ve built for 40 years,” he said. “But I have this real strong commitment that this is what I am supposed to do ... I am ready.”
Leanne Graham, a Massachusetts native, will take over as executive director of the agency in January.
“I am humbled to follow in the footsteps of the founder of not only the agency but to follow one of the few who created the victim movement, which has bettered the lives of millions,” she said. “Bob has been an amazing mentor to me and will continue to be in years to come.”
Married to Akron Police Sgt. Bruce Graham, she held various positions with the Victim Assistance Program, the Battered Women’s Shelter and the Rape Crisis Center over the last several years and has been associate director of the Victim Assistance Program since August.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.