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Friends: Smith’s experience to serve him well in Fla.

ElgDeputy Police Chief Cecil Smith is given plaque by American LegiPost 57 Commander Norm Bellows during goodbye event Saturday Elgpost.

Elgin Deputy Police Chief Cecil Smith is given a plaque by American Legion Post 57 Commander Norm Bellows during a goodbye event Saturday at the Elgin post. Smith is retiring March 15 to take the police chief post in Sanford, Fla. 2/23/13. | Janelle Walker~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:33AM

ELGIN — The goodbyes have begun for Elgin Deputy Police Chief Cecil Smith, who is retiring here March 15 to become chief of police in Sanford, Fla., on April 1.

Elgin American Legion Post 57, where Smith has been a member for 26 years, hosted a goodbye event at an open house Saturday at the post.

“This man lets you know that ‘Elgin’s Finest’ really is its finest,” said Tricia Dieringer, past commander of the Elgin post, as she introduced a lineup of speakers.

Smith was lauded by Dieringer, Elgin Mayor David Kaptain and Police Chief Jeff Swoboda, among others.

One of those who took the opportunity to speak about Smith and his time as an Elgin officer was former Elgin police chief Charles Gruber. Smith was one of the first officers asked to become a Resident Officer Program of Elgin officer, living in a city-owned home in one of the city’s problem neighborhoods, Gruber said.

“This is pretty exciting, Cecil going to Sanford,” Gruber said. As a young chief himself, he was once chief of police in Shreveport, La., Gruber said. For a “Yankee going South,” it will be as new and difficult of an experience for Smith as it was for him, he said.

“It is difficult to go to another city and to set down roots and establish yourself,” Gruber said. He already has reached out to police chiefs and other officials in the area to help Smith transition to the new community, he said.

Smith’s hiring as the new Sanford chief has made national and international headlines. The city’s former chief was fired last year during the controversy surrounding the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a community watch volunteer.

“To come to Elgin to tap Cecil Smith … says volumes about the Elgin Police Department, that it produces such people,” Swoboda said.

He and Smith were some of the first officers in the ROPE program, and four of those officers are currently in leadership positions in the Elgin department, Swoboda said.

What they as officers learned from that program was how to talk to residents and get to know both them and their problems, Swoboda said.

He plans to bring that experience to Sanford, Smith said.

“It is a community that is troubled,” Smith said, but not that different from the troubles Elgin has had in the past, with gangs, drugs and racism.

“We learned how to go out and talk with people,” Smith said. “I hope to do the same in Sanford.”

The issues and controversy since the Trayvon Martin shooting are “just the tip of the iceberg with issues there,” Smith said.

As Smith makes the transition, he will always have a home at the Elgin American Legion, said post Commander Norm Bellows.

“We will always regard you as a member here, no matter where you go,” Bellow said.

An official city retirement ceremony for Smith is set for 2 p.m. March 15 at the Centre of Elgin’s Heritage Ballroom.

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