JACKSON - Jim Whalen remembers pulling a guy over sometime in the late 1990s when he and retiring Sheriff Bob Zimmer were both cops at the Jackson Police Department.
They got a call about a guy hitting his wife and taking off in a car, probably drunk. Whalen found the man and pulled him over.
When Whalen began questioning the man, the suspect said, 'Hey, I think I know your boss. I'm friends with Bob Zimmerman.' "
That's when Zimmer arrived for backup. He was a police sergeant then.
"'Hey sarge,' " Whalen said. " 'This guy says he knows you. He says you're buddies. Did you change your name to Zimmerman?' "
The mustache, and the man, were a fixture, a patrolling landmark that would only grow more widely known.
"He has such a presence," Whalen said Tuesday. "People wanted to know him. He is an icon."
Zimmer announced Monday night to 62 Teton County Sheriff's Office employees gathered in the county commissioners chambers that he will retire Jan. 6, almost two years before the end of his term. He was first elected in 1998 and took office in 1999 after 24 years as an officer with the Jackson Police Department.
Zimmer, 64, is tall and wears glasses. His voice is loud, commanding and jovial. But the thing that makes him stand out most might be the long bushy white mustache.
Whalen remembers testing into the Jackson Police Department in 1990. There were nine people on the oral board that interviewed him.
"There were nine people, and the only one I remembered was the guy with the big mustache," Whalen said. "He was intimidating."
The signature mustache decorates the face of a cartoon sheriff emblazoned on almost every promotional item that leaves the office, along with Zimmer's name.
"I think a lot of people have an image of who the Teton County sheriff should be and how he should be," said Teton County Attorney Steve Weichman. "And I think Zimmer is that image."
It will be hard for Zimmer to leave the sheriff's badge behind. He wrote in a letter to several close friends and colleagues that he never intended to leave his office before the end of his term.
"That's been his life for the last 10 years," said his daughter, Robyn Zimmer. "He's dedicated his life to being sheriff. He won't ever be as involved in any other community as he has been here."
Zimmer said he'll think about the people he's worked with more than anything.
"I know this valley is special," he said. "The mountains and the rivers are special. But when I look over my shoulder, it's going to be the people."
Several employees left Monday's meeting in tears.
It was just the beginning. At the front desk of his department, employees' eyes welled up when they talked about his retirement Tuesday. Zimmer himself was teary throughout the emotional day.
"I thought this would get easier as the day went on," he said, taking his glasses off to rub his eyes. "It's not."
He spent time with employees, attended a Rotary Club luncheon and performed a Masonic ritual at the fresh grave of his good friend Norris Brown, who died last week.
Zimmer told employees Monday that he plans to move to Arizona to be closer to his parents.
"I hate to see the man go," said Gary Shaw, a sheriff's detective. "But he's got his reasons for doing this and I think he's got his priorities straight."
Deputies said they are proud of Zimmer and the work the department has done under his leadership. Yet many were nervous when he was elected.
"I really was not very excited about Bob being my boss," said Cindy Leeper, who worked in dispatch, as an investigator and who retired last year to take a post at the front desk, a few feet from Zimmer. After 16 years of Roger Millward, "Bob was kind of the unknown," she said. "I thought he might be kind of chauvinistic. He wasn't at all.
"He has a very open-door policy," she said. "It's amazing to me that he allows people to just pop in and visit with him any time."
Suzie Kirvinskee, the office manager for 24 years, said she was so anxious when Zimmer was elected that she called him before he moved over to ask if she would be able to keep her job. Zimmer assured her that she would always have a job and she didn't need to worry, she said.
"I know he wanted to create the best organization filled with the best people possible," said detective Matt Ednie. "By and large, I think he's accomplished that. This is a professional organization I think we can all be proud of. When I say that, I mean all of us who work here and all of us in the community."
Zimmer plotted his election campaign with some help from Whalen. His mantra was "Fair, friendly and honest."
It's still his mantra. And it has become the office mantra. Employees say the words in various different orders, but those who spoke about Zimmer referred to the words as the core values of the sheriff's office.
"The beauty of it is its simplicity," Whalen said. "If we can adhere to these principles everything will be fine."
Weichman, the county attorney, said he's respected Zimmer throughout his law enforcement career, but he was most impressed by him when he took a public hit for his deputies.
During a controversy over the use of a stun gun on a streaker at the county fair three years ago, Zimmer talked about why and how the deputies use the devices, then he had one of his deputies use one on him in front of a crowd of 200 people at a Rotary lunch. He warned that he might become incontinent. He didn't.
"He froze, he groaned this deep, soulful groan, and he went down like a sack of hot rattlers," Weichman said.
He and many others are starting to look ahead to what will come.
"There are a lot of really good peace officers in Teton County, some of whom will undoubtedly throw in for the office of sheriff," Weichman said. "I hope that the people who step up to the plate will be as fiercely loyal as war-hearted and as brave as their predecessor in title. If they're not willing to be Tased in front of 200 people, maybe they're not cut for the job."
Zimmer is a Republican. After he leaves office Jan. 6, the Teton County Republican Central Committee has 15 days to solicit names of potential candidates and then turn three names over to Teton County commissioners, according to Sherry Daigle, the county clerk. County commissioners have five days after they get the names to appoint a new sheriff to carry out the remainder of Zimmer's term.
Joe Schloss, chairman of the Teton County Republican Party, said the process is similar to one the party just went through to replace county Commissioner Bill Paddleford.
Zimmer said he will appoint Whalen to head the department in the interim.