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Woolery departs after 34 years

Craig Woolery pitches the HERO (health and emergency response occupations) Center during a Legislative bonding tour last fall. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 4
Craig Woolery 2 / 4
Pete Koerner3 / 4
Incoming Public Saftey Director Pete Koerner and council member Steve Dennis present a gift to outgoing public saftey director that spans his years in Cottage Grove law enforcement at the Feb. 21 city council meeting. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 4

Cottage Grove Public Safety Director Craig Woolery said goodbye to the department Feb. 23, after for a nearly 35-year career.

Woolery announced his retirement back in September, allowing nearly five months for the hiring process, as well as what he called at the time his "long Minnesota goodbye."

He has worked in Cottage Grove Public Safety since 1983, when he started as a Community Service Officer and paramedic. Three years later, he became a full-time patrol officer/ paramedic.

"I never thought when I started here as CSO, that I'd end up public safety director," Woolery said.

Looking back on his lengthy Cottage Grove career, Woolery finds it difficult to pinpoint the worst and best moments. One that will always stick with him, though, is a save early on in his career.

On Thanksgiving day, 1995, he was called to a cardiac arrest.

Woolery and the others on duty were able to save the woman, and her husband later donated CPR training mannequins to the city as a thank you.

With a job like this, though, he said there were plenty of difficult moments.

"But I try to stay positive," Woolery said. "It does take its toll over the course of time, the events that you see, things that happen. People have had to leave due to trauma or stress ... that has an impact."

One of his priorities as chief and public safety director was finding ways to help the officers and staff navigate these occupational difficulties. He said he's proud there's never been a death in the field on his watch, though there have been instances of death by suicide.

"We're trying to change that culture ... trying to catch those signs early," Woolery said. "I'm proud we're working to achieve that."

Under his leadership the department started peer mentoring programs, employee assistance and counselling services.

"We never see a name, all we know is we receive a bill and someone's using it, and that's fantastic," he said. "All that baggage comes to work, and we want our first responders to be the best they can be."

Several people spoke at the Feb. 21 city council meeting where Woolery was honored for his 34 years in the department, saying that this kind of care he brings to his service is what made him a successful director and resident of the city.

"Every time the community's asked you to do something, you've stepped up," Sen. Karla Bigham said.

Woolery even stepped in as the interim city administrator during a change in leadership in 2015.

"It was a very simple choice to ask you to be the administrator for the city Cottage Grove when you did, because we needed someone to go in there to kind of calm things down," Mayor Myron Bailey said at the Feb. 21 city council meeting.

Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry said that working with Woolery helped him become the sheriff he is.

"He's been a mentor, there's no doubt about it," he said. "(He's) an all-around good guy, someone who really knows his stuff, and is compassionate and serves the citizens well."

Woolery's successor after 12 years as the director of public safety, Capt. Pete Koerner, was announced last month.

"(The city) is in an excellent position with Pete Koerner to move ahead," he said.

Beyond just Koerner, Woolery said he's expecting great things from the department he's leaving.

"What makes me proud is knowing the caliber of the personnel we have today," he said. "They will have no problem serving the community. Each generation builds upon the people who have left ... Hopefully the organization continues the positive climb."

Woolery looks forward to seeing the department move forward after he leaves, with the Central Fire Station nearing the end of construction, a new records management system on its way and at some point body-worn cameras will be made a reality.

An avid outdoorsman, Woolery is looking forward to hunting, fishing, skiing, traveling and spending more time with his family during his retirement.

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