Ace of Hearts: Albert C. Ehlow, 77, remembered as ‘strong’ chief of police
By Eric Heinz
Update, Aug. 11:
The internment of Albert “Ace” Ehlow’s ashes will take place 1 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 17 at at the Miramar National Cemetery, 5795 Nobel Drive in San Diego with a Marine Detail present, family friend and former co-worker Richard Corder said. The Ehlow family and Ziegler family, in a private car, will depart San Juan Capistrano at 10:30 a.m. that morning. The Ehlow’s are considering engaging a Patriot Guard Escort from San Juan to the cemetery.
For Marine Corps League, South County Detachment, members and friends who would like to be part of the procession to the cemetery, they will meet at 10:15 a.m. on the same day at Tommy’s Family Restaurant Parking Lot, 1409 E. El Camino Real in San Clemente.
“Please wear your MCL Hawaiian Shirts and Red Covers in Al’s Honor if possible,” Corder said. “The Ehlow’s car should arrive at 10:45 a.m. Upon their arrival, we will all fall in trail and proceed South together. If you are driving independently, please arrive by at the Cemetery by 12:30 p.m., as the Ceremony starts at 1 p.m. and will conclude approximately 30 minutes later.”
The last San Clemente Police Department Chief, Albert “Ace” C. Ehlow, 77, died last week in Paris while on vacation.
Ace is remembered by his colleagues and friends as the shining example of a police officer, leader and community advocate.
His initials inspired the nickname Ace, but some say said he earned it through his dedication and service to the community of San Clemente.
Ace was on vacation with his wife, Marylin, when previous health conditions flared and caused him to become ill. He died on the evening of July 16 in Paris.
Richard Corder, a former SCPD officer who was hired by Ace in 1979, said Ace’s wife and children made their way back to the United States with his body on Wednesday.
San Clemente’s Last Police Chief
Ace was a corporal in the U.S. Marines Corps stationed at Camp Pendleton. After his military service, he joined the San Clemente Police Department in 1961, starting out in animal control and worked his way up the ranks. In 1987, he was appointed chief of police by the City Council.
He retired in 1992 shortly after the city made a financial move to contract police services with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
“He was fair, compassionate and we were all one big family at the San Clemente Police Department,” Corder said. “Everybody (at the police department) cared about each other. He made you want to work for him and enjoy working for him.”
Gary E. Brown, a former SCPD police chief from 1978-85, said Ace was someone he could depend on when he first came to town.
“Before I arrived as police chief, Al was very welcoming and very straightforward and very supportive,” Brown said. “There were no strangers in the room when Al was there. I never saw him get depressed or get down on himself or others.”
With Brown at the helm, Ace was responsible for overseeing the detectives, dispatch and police records.
“He was very knowledgeable about those functions,” Brown said. “If I needed something, and I needed expertise, I would call him and we’d get the support we needed.”
When the city had to recoup finances in the early 1990s, which included having public safety services absorbed by the county, Brown said Ace didn’t make a fuss about the transition.
“He was always a loyal employee and he supported it; he wasn’t excited about it, but he went along with the program,” Brown said. “But his heart was always with the original San Clemente Police Department.”
Linda Sutton, OCSD staff assistant who worked with Ace beginning in 1978, said Ace started his career as a dog catcher and worked through the ranks to patrolman, detective, lieutenant and eventually chief.
“No matter what happened in law enforcement, he was the man you called,” Sutton said. “He kept a close regime with people who left. He was an amazing person. He always wanted to help with everything.
Duties Beyond the Badge
Rod Rodriguez, a former SCPD officer and U.S. Marine, said he knew Ace for more than 50 years. Rodriguez said Ace was instrumental in organizing annual Memorial Day events, was a frequent aide to the Marine Corps League, helped establish Semper Fi Park, arranged to help give food to Marines families and welcomed troops back home.
“I worked for (SCPD) for 12 years, and then I started my own business here in town, and we became acquainted in the Marine Corps League,” Rodriguez said. “We did barbecues for the 2/4 and the Chamber of Commerce, and Ehlow was the first one to help me. This has been going on for about 15 years and he worked all those years.”
Rodriguez said when they wanted to revive the Memorial Day events, he knew who to call.
“The first guy I called was Al, and 12 years later we built (the attendance) up from five or six people to…this last year we must have had about 1,000 people.”
Jim Dahl, former San Clemente mayor and city councilman, has a bonded history with Ace, as well as a municipal rap sheet.
“He gave me my first and only ticket in 1962 for my surfboard hanging out of my car,” Dahl said.
Dahl was a firefighter while Ace was on the police services.
“He was a great guy and I really respected him,” Dahl said. “Whenever there was a disaster, he would be calm, cool and collected, and he was a great chief and a great person.”
Capt. John Coppock, OCSD Southwest Operations division commander, started with SCPS in 1986, right before Ace was named chief.
When Coppock returned to take over as chief of Police Services for OCSD in San Clemente, he said he and Ace started a citizen’s academy, a now-defunct 12-week program that provided citizens an inside look at law enforcement.
“Ace would come in and talk about the law enforcement history (in San Clemente) and during…the Nixon Era, he had a lot of funny stories,” Coppock said. “He would donate his time and teach and share his experiences.”
When President Richard Nixon was in office and would stay at his residence in the south part of the city, Coppock said the department got a lot of federal money to watch over the Commander in Chief.
“He told this story about one time Nixon actually snuck off the grounds without Secret Service to drive to Camp Pendleton,” Coppock said.
It was Ace who led the movement to dedicate a portion of Interstate 5 as Richard T. Steed Memorial Highway in honor of the officer who was killed in the line of duty, Coppock said.
“He was just like a father to me,” Coppock said. “He was just a real father figure to a lot of us and helped maintain that family atmosphere. He was just a great man with a heart of gold.”
Coppock said Ace stayed in touch with a lot of the former and current police officers after he retired.
“He was just very involved until the very end,” Coppock said.
Former San Clemente resident and Arizona State Trooper Hugh Grant said his father worked under Ace when they lived in the area. During a phone interview on Tuesday, Grant said Ace would keep consistent contact with him and his family. Grant recalled times when his father and Ace would be at various community events or working at the police station.
“The two things outside his family that mattered to Ace were the police department and the Marine Corps,” Grant said. “Al called me once in a while just to chat for half an hour about general things and the good old days, and he would visit us out here.”
Grant said when his father died, Ace sent him old newspaper clippings about his dad’s accomplishments as a police officer in San Clemente. He, his wife and Ace would meet once a year for lunch or talk on the phone about life in general.
Some of the alumni of the San Clemente Police Department went on to become chiefs in their own departments, which Rodriguez said was astounding.
He said he couldn’t remember how many former SCPD officers became chief of police of other departments after working for Ace.
When he got the news, Rodriguez was devastated.
“I lost my best friend. I could not believe it,” Rodriguez said. “I’m 76 years old and I was crying like a baby. He was a very special person. Everyone loved him, and he was a very good boss and a really good guy to work for.”
Ace lived in San Juan Capistrano and raised two boys, and he also was a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigations academy but never enlisted as an agent.
Linda Sutton said Ace was very active with the Mariners Church at Ocean Hills in San Juan and was an integral leader in that community as well.
Sutton said Ace even attended her daughter’s wedding, and he also worked with the Exchange Club of San Clemente beginning in 1966.
“He knew everyone’s name and he was so eloquent in his speaking and so passionate about life—your life, his life and his family’s life,” Sutton said.
Having known Ace for more than 35 years, Corder said he took words of wisdom from his former boss.
“I learned that you can be a leader of people and that you can do the job that it takes and have fun doing it, treating your employees with respect—and that’s the way it was with him,” Corder said. “I strive to be like he was, and when I was a sergeant I tried to be like he was.”
Corder said he has anthologies of stories about Ace. One time, as part of a practical joke, he said he soaked his boss’ chair with water, and an unsuspecting Ace ended up ruining a new suit. Corder would later receive retribution in the form of his locker being superglued shut.
“He was all for us getting around and getting to know the community,” Corder said.
The night in Paris when it appeared Ace’s health was failing, Corder had called to see how he was doing.
After getting off the phone with Marylin, Corder said instinct took over.
“Something in me said ‘Don’t wait,’ and I called back,” he said. “I talked with him three hours before he passed away. I was just lucky, I talked to his wife and I asked her to hold the phone to his ear so we could talk. He was coherent but his voice was real shaky.
“I basically just told him that I loved him and he said he loved me. I told him I cherished our long friendship and he said he felt the same,” Corder said. “I told him to keep on fighting, and he said he was in so much stomach pain. I told him ‘Don’t check out on me over there.’”
Three hours later, Ace had died.
“His wife said she told him when he gets to heaven, to save her a seat…and he said he would, and then one more time I asked her to put the phone up to him again, and I told him I loved him,” Corder said.
—Editor’s Note: An abridged version of this story was published in the July 23-29 edition of the San Clemente Times.