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Libby remembers former police chief who gave his life in line of duty

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | May 3, 2024 7:00 AM

John Ferdinand Bockman was a young man in his early 30s when he was summoned from his home late on the night of Monday, April 28, 1924.

Bockman was the Chief of Police in Libby at the time and he was called out after a worker with the Great Northern Railway had a frightening encounter with a dangerous man who would later take Bockman’s life.

One hundred years to the day of Bockman’s demise at the hands of the gunman, the beloved officer was memorialized in a ceremony at the Libby Police Department headquarters on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The ceremony was attended by descendants of the Bockman family as well as city and county officials.

Bockman’s granddaughter, Margaret Bockman Putman, was one of the family members who attended.

“It was an absolute tragedy,” Putman said. “The impact of a fallen officer on the community was great and my grandmother never had joy in her life again.”

At the time, Bockman was married to Albia Sladek Bockman and they had two children, aged 1 and 3. 

Ferd’s son, John Ferdinand Bockman II, had just celebrated his third birthday. Despite his young age, he shared a few memories of the time, recalling some members of the Kootenai Indian Tribe who came to the family home to sit and pay their respects with the family.

The effort to memorialize Ferd Bockman began about a quarter century ago when former Chief of Police Clay Coker started the effort. Brent Teske, a former city police officer who has served as mayor and now as a Lincoln County Commissioner, helped spearhead the effort after a fellow officer told him about the incident in the 1990s.

Elena Putman, Ferd’s great-granddaughter, made a trip to Libby in 2020 and ended up meeting with Teske and former Chief of Police Scott Kessel.

“Our conversations really inspired the effort to get it done,” Elena said. “I didn’t become aware of Brent’s efforts until I got here and contacted Chief Kessel. Brent gave me a tour of the city and we stayed in contact since then.

“Earlier this year, I was thinking about it when Brent emailed me to let me know plans for the memorial were progressing,” Elena said.

Current Libby Police Chief Cody Ercanbrack read a statement during the ceremony.

“It’s amazing the legacy he has left,” Ercanbrack said. “He will never be forgotten.”

The railway employee, identified as Warren Hill in the May 1, 1924, edition of The Western News, was a member of the signal service crew. Hill was making his way home when he encountered the killer. He wondered if he was going to be the victim of a hold up. The man, first identified as J.E. Clark, exchanged words with Hill before firing a shot from a revolver at the Great Northern employee. 

Hill was not struck and escaped to the Grill Cafe where he told Al Lovick, the proprietor, his story. Lovick called Ferd Bockman at home and the chief arrived quickly.

Bockman and Hill drove to the rail yards where the vehicle’s headlights fell upon the desperado. Bockman got out and confronted Clark, telling him to throw up his hands. The man refused and backed away as Bockman continued to yell at him to raise his hands.

Hill then said three shots rang out and one of the men fell down. At first, Hill couldn’t tell which man had been shot. Hill could see a man making his way down the tracks, then called out to Bockman repeatedly. He did not reply and Hill went back to the depot to get a flashlight. He returned to the scene of the shooting and found Bockman, who had died of a gunshot.

After a brief search for the gunman, Hill went up town and reported the incident to the sheriff’s office. Undersheriff L.G. Sperry, with Sheriff F.R. Barney out of town, took charge and led a group of men to the rail yard.

During the search for Clark, a shot was heard and he was soon found laying beside of pile of railroad ties just west of Mineral Avenue. Clark still had a hold of his gun, but he was bleeding badly. He was taken to the Kootenai Valley hospital before he was moved to the county jail where he died Tuesday night.

A story in the next edition of The Western News shared the funeral service held for Bockman.

In part, it read, “Undoubtably the largest attendance at any funeral ever held in Libby was present at the funeral services of the late Ferd Bockman, Libby’s chief of police, who was shot and killed Monday night of last week while making an arrest.”

It continued, “It was a wonderful tribute paid by fellow citizens to the sterling manhood and high esteem for one who had died in the faithful discharge of duty.”

Services were held at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and six members of the Austin Reedy Post of the American Legion were pallbearers, including George Bryant, Ira Miller, Al Lovick, Walter Botchek, W. Guttenberg and Walter Zollors.

Elena, an Arizona native now living in Phoenix with her family, said her great-grandfather’s story was one of legend that they hadn’t heard much about.

Strangely, a member of the Clark family reached out to the Bockman family in the 1990s. While Clark’s identity was a mystery at the time of his death, his family eventually learned of his death.

“One of his descendants - a nephew - pieced it together and contacted John F. Bockman II,” Elena said. “My great-grandfather grew up here in Libby. They were from Nebraska and he was one of 10 kids.

“They came here in a horse-drawn cart around the turn of the century,” she said. “Some of the kids were born here. The family bought 200 acres in the Bear Creek area and worked in logging and delivering supplies from the railroad to the Snowshoe Mine.”

During Sunday’s ceremony, Teske read a resolution passed by the city following Bockman’s death.

“He brought to the city a character of service that was unique. His 

earnest and thoughtful diligence, his exacting care and attention to every detail of duty devolving upon him, marked him at once as an unusual officer. He grew with his experience in ability and willingness to serve the city.

“It will be hard, indeed, if not quite impossible, to secure any one man to take his place and do so well and so efficiently all of the work which he did for the city in the police and street department.”

While Teske led the effort to create the memorial and hold a ceremony, he also donated to the cost of having it built. Joining him were the LOR Foundation, Kraken Contracting and Idaho Granite Works.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Libby,” Elena Putman said. “They’ve been wonderful. Libby will always be a fond place for us.”

    Albia and John Bockman, circa 1920, Libby, Montana. (Photo courtesy Bockman Putman family)
 
 
    Brent Teske speaks at an April 28, 2024, ceremony at the Libby Police Department where a memorial was unveiled in the name of former Libby Chief of Police John Ferdinand Bockman. Bockman died in the line of duty on April 28, 1924, in Libby at the Great Northern Railway yard. Teske led the effort to recognize the fallen law man. (Scott Shindledecker/The Western News)
 
 
    Libby Chief of Police John Ferdinand Bockman
 
 
    Current Libby Police Chief Cody Ercanbrack speaks at an April 28, 2024, ceremony at the Libby Police Department where a memorial was unveiled in the name of former Libby Chief of Police John Ferdinand Bockman. Bockman died in the line of duty on April 28, 1924, in Libby at the Great Northern Railway yard. (Scott Shindledecker/The Western News)
 
 
    Attendees observe a memorial plaque in the name of former Libby Chief of Police John Ferdinand Bockman at an April 28, 2024, ceremony at the Libby Police Department. Bockman died in the line of duty on April 28, 1924, in Libby at the Great Northern Railway yard. (Scott Shindledecker/The Western News)
 
 
    Dee Teske sizes up a display of old The Western News stories and photographs of former Libby Chief of Police John Ferdinand Bockman at an April 28, 2024, ceremony at the Libby Police Department. Bockman died in the line of duty on April 28, 1924, in Libby at the Great Northern Railway yard. (Scott Shindledecker/The Western News)