Police family wonders if long Christmas dinner tradition will continue

Easing down onto the couch, Sgt. Paul Arnold relaxes, if only for a moment: it’s been a long day.

Behind him is his wife Dawn, flitting about the kitchen. Baked potatoes cook in the over while the dishwasher hums along. Poinsettias sit by the hearth of the fireplace, which sits cold in the 70-degree weather. 

In the dinning room sit a handful of Franklin Police Department officers, taking a break for a home-cooked Christmas dinner while on shift.

“Hold on just a minute,” Arnold says.

Striding to the door, he opens it to find another officer, greeting him with a hug and handshake.

“This is my extended family,” he said, motioning over to the officers laughing and cutting up at the table.

Photo by Emily R. West.

Two decades ago, the Arnolds had an idea – no one should spend Christmas without a home-cooked meal, including those who work three shifts at the department. Paul knew firsthand what it was like otherwise.

“My wife and my mother came to meet me for dinner while I was working on Christmas Day at the department,” Paul said. “We didn’t think about it, but nothing was open. You go to a convenience market, and that was it. We had our Christmas dinner at the cafeteria in the hospital at Williamson Medical. It was not an exciting uplifting experience. We were the only ones in there eating. After that, I was like, never again.”

Now 20 years later, the Arnolds are hosting what will probably be the last police department Christmas meal.

“It sort of feels like a finale,” Dawn said, taking a break from the kitchen. “I am hoping that people take this on in the community. I would love to help, but this has expanded. It’s bigger than our house. And as Franklin grows, it will only have more officers.” 

Four days ago, the Arnolds started all the preparations. Officers had the ability to order off a menu, one Dawn has learned to limit throughout the past two decades. A handful of appetizers and desserts accompany the meal, comprised of New York steak strip, pit-smoked turkey breast, a baked potato bar and a make-your-own salad bar, corn casserole and rolls.

“The first year I didn’t do the menus,” Dawn explained. “We way over bought, and it was a mad house. It only took us just a couple of years to figure what they wanted.”

Normally intertwined in much of the preparations, Paul has had a more difficult go. He now battles colon cancer again, meaning he feels more drained than usual. This past July, he was diagnosed with metastatic cancer that is incurable.

“If I listen to my doctors I won’t be here next year,” he said, his fingers interlaced. “No one knows. God knows. I take a pragmatic view.”

Despite Paul’s prognosis, the Arnolds said it’s all about, not only giving back, but providing a warm and welcoming space for the officers working on the biggest holiday of the season.

“It’s really sad sometimes what they have to go on call to handle during Christmas,” Dawn said.  “They feel safe here. They don’t have to watch over their shoulder here. They can have whatever they want to eat. For us, it’s all about the fellowship.”

Across the counter is Paul’s best friend, retired Lt. Richard Verbosky. The past two years, he’s been helping the Arnolds. This year he came prepared to pitch in even more than usual. The dinner shifts start at 11 a.m. and end at 1 a.m. 

“We have been through a lot together on the street,” Verbosky said. “We have lot of pretty harrowing experiences during our career. We were always shoulder to shoulder. I was here last year, and it’s a good feeling. It doesn’t seem any different and it’s rewarding coming her to help versus being on shift. I see faces and people I haven’t met yet. I’ve done everything from carving turkeys to washing dishes.”

A grin inched across Paul’s face.

“They fit really well with Dawn’s plans,” Paul said with a small laugh. “It’s a nice machine – the two of them.”

Even though his efforts have declined, Paul said he’s not sure this is going to be his last Christmas.

“It’s been very upbeat Christmas and the department has rallied around me in this situation,” he said. “The support of the department has been a blessing. But you know, if you’re born, you’re going to die. No one gets a pass. It’s just a matter of when. And it’s not the years in your life that matter as much as the life in your years. What have you done with yourself while you’ve been here … that’s what matters.”

Battling cancer now his third time, Paul has a frame of reference for what’s coming – the treatments, the fatigue, the complicated days. But all the while, he still continues to work as the police armorer, maintaining and repairing firearms and other weaponry. He helps operate the gun range, along with constantly learning new styles and makes of guns.

Paul has said he’s not sure where life is going to take him, but for Christmas, he’s going to take pleasure in what’s right in front of him.

“Even though it’s the last year, I enjoy doing it,” he said. “You listen to all that laughter. You can see why.”

Emily West covers Franklin, education, and the state legislature for the Franklin Home Page. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter via @emwest22.

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