It was just about 50 years ago that a Marine Corps veteran working as a rodeo clown found himself marooned in Santa Rosa and in the company of near-mythical police chief Melvin “Dutch” Flohr as the two of them sipped coffee at the counter at Denny’s.
In the course of the chinwag, Ralph Fravel disclosed that the owners of the traveling rodeo had informed him and the rest of the crew right there in Santa Rosa that the operation had gone belly-up.
Suddenly out of work, Fravel told the chief he had found a place in Rincon Valley to stable the rodeo horses but still had to figure out what to do with himself. As Fravel’s son, Darren, recalls the tale, the police chief had sized up his dad’s character and potential when he asked, “Ralph, you want to be a cop?”
The idea set well with Fravel, a sturdy, disciplined and adventurous sort who served with the Marines in Okinawa in the early 1960s and liked going fast on horseback or in a race car. With a firm handshake, he accepted Flohr’s offer.
As friend and former longtime colleague Rod Sverko remembers, Flohr swore in Fravel as the newest member of the Santa Rosa Police Department on Feb. 1, 1968 — the well-traveled rookie’s 27th birthday.
The career law-enforcement officer was 77 when he died on Dec. 26.
Fravel had taken to the work naturally.
“He was an officer who started with no police experience, and he educated himself,” said Sverko, who at first was a sergeant to Fravel and who retired as a commander in 2003.
“He did his job,” Sverko said of Fravel. “He was one of those guys who came to work every day and did his job in an honorable way.”
Unlike Chief Flohr, Fravel wasn’t a big guy, at about 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. “He was larger than life, but he wasn’t real big in stature,” Darren Fravel said.
And, having served as a Marine for four years of active service and two years as a reservist, he didn’t back down from a confrontation or challenge.
“He was a Marine,” his son said. “That’s the best way I can describe him. The Marine Corps toughness carried over into the rest of his life, that’s for sure.”
Fravel married in Santa Rosa and started a family. There was a divorce, and in 1982 Fravel married the former Kathie Bess and became a stepfather to her children.
Fravel’s own childhood, in his native Columbus, Indiana, had been tough. But he completed high school and in 1959, at age 18, enlisted as a Marine.
Following his peacetime service, he became a bare bronco rider and clown. Serendipity put him in Santa Rosa and in need of work.
After serving as a patrol officer for quite some time, the longtime lover of cars and racing was promoted to detective and discovered a specialty that revved him up: Finding stolen autos and arresting the thieves who took them.
He was a pioneer member of the Sonoma County Auto Theft Task Force. “He loved investigations,” Darren Fravel said.
Ralph Fravel received numerous awards and citations for his work as an auto-theft detective, and 1987 was named the state Assembly’s public safety officer of the year.