Women's Citizen of the Year: Holly Vadbunker

Illinois Conservation Police Officer Holly Vadbunker checks the license of an angler fishing at the Kankakee River State Park alongside Warner Bridge Road in 2016. The state park was known as a “rough party area’’ when Vadbunker first began her career, but through her dedicated enforcement efforts, the park now is more “clean and family-friendly.’’

Because of her, the greater outdoors in Kankakee County also is a safer outdoors.

Holly Vadbunker retired on Sept. 30, 2018, after a 28-year career as an Illinois Conservation police officer. She has been named the Female Citizen of the Year by the Daily Journal for her devotion to protecting the Kankakee River State Park, as well as protecting those who use it.

Vadbunker’s long career featured a wide variety of law enforcement activities. She saved lives. She educated the public. And she arrested, when needed, persons for a wide range of offenses, everything from fishing over the limit to narcotics.

The official retirement announcement issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said, “She devoted a lot of time to the Kankakee River State Park, which was a rough party area at the beginning of her career and (she) worked to keep it clean and family-friendly.”

“I tried to make a difference,” she said. “I’m an old-school person. I always wanted my actions to speak louder than my words.”

It’s a job that involves protecting us while preserving the best that nature has to offer. Notified of the award, she expressed both surprise and thanks. She did not want to speak about herself, but was grateful her peers, sportsmen in the Kankakee River Valley, and the public noticed what she had done.

Others did notice. In 2006, she was named the top Conservation Officer in Illinois. On three other occasions, she was named the Conservation Police Officer of the Year in Region 2, which includes Kankakee, Will, Grundy, Cook, Kendall, Kane, DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties. Vadbunker worked mostly in Kankakee County, but her assignments during the years also have included Will, Grundy, Kendall and even Iroquois County during hunting season.

In 2007, she was named the Officer of the Year by the Association of Midwest Fish and Game Law Enforcement Officers. In 2014, the North American Wildlife Officers Association gave her its Outstanding Service award.

In 2017, she received the Department of Natural Resources merit award for outstanding cases in drug enforcement.

“She worked closely with Amtrak Police and DEA the last several years and helped thwart suitcases full of drugs from traveling through Chicago and seized hundreds of thousands in cash for the DEA,” her department retirement citation noted.

In 2018, Vadbunker was honored by the Northern Illinois Anglers Association with the group’s appreciation award for outstanding leadership and partnership in NIAA’s mission to restore the Kankakee River.

Dave Wollgast, a Conservation police sergeant, worked alongside Vadbunker since 2003 and served as her supervisor for several years.

“She is a go-getter,” Wollgast said. “She knows everyone and always knew what was going on. She was constantly moving.”

In the year Vadbunker was named Officer of the Year in Illinois, she wrote 453 warnings and issued 362 citations, along with making more than 30 drug arrests.

Wollgast said Vadbunker always was a “top producer. Someone who wrote the most tickets and the most reports.”

Wollgast said the Kankakee River State Park was one of the busiest parks in the state. For many years, he said, the Kankakee park could have used two officers and she was the only one.

He said she was the type of officer who was well-attuned to catch every violation. Those ranged, he said, from dogs off the leash and parking on the grass to taking too many trout and today’s drug arrests.

“That’s part of the job, too,” he said.

In 2001, Vadbunker teamed up with Doug Mau, then a state park maintenance officer, to save the lives of five women after their canoes had overturned in surging spring water. They tied a rope to the bank and brought the women to safety one at a time.

Vadbunker is a native of the Kankakee area. She graduated from Kankakee High before earning a business degree from Southern Illinois University.

But “she did not like the idea of staying inside,” she said. She met with a game warden and decided that this would be a great career for her.

And while she often worked alone as far as people go, she had been a canine officer for many years. She first worked with a yellow Lab named Leo and then had Toby, a German Shepherd, in the years leading up to her retirement. Toby now is retired with her in a new home in Missouri. She said she doesn’t miss the weekends, but Toby still is getting used to not working.

The noses of the dogs, she explained, were great for sniffing out excess or illegal game when hunters were trying to conceal it from the officer. They also smelled out narcotics. The dogs also can search for missing persons and for fugitives fleeing from the law.

The dogs also were big hits when the officer was called on to meet with students in area classrooms or with seniors in nursing homes. Quite a bit of public speaking was required, she said. Throughout the years, Vadbunker also participated in other community service activities such as Shop with a Cop.

“You have to put in a lot of hours on a case,” she said, “so when you finally catch them, it’s very rewarding. It’s been interesting work.”

Vadbunker once said, “you’re not doing your job if you don’t get it (your truck) stuck — good game cases aren’t made on the highway.”

The types of violations she caught during the year have included: using an illegal crossbow; shooting deer over bait; using deer tags that belonged to other people; hunting from a vehicle; boating in restricted areas; and taking more than the legal limit of fish.

Vadbunker wryly noted she loved the beauty of the morning sunrise, which made it clear enough to catch someone doing what they were not supposed to be doing if necessary.

“There are people who purposely do stuff wrong — like drink at the park,” she said. “They would pass six to eight signs telling them alcohol was not allowed. Then they would ask why I wouldn’t just give them a warning. They had already been warned.”

She won’t miss, she said, having to deal with people who weren’t willing to take responsibility for their actions.

Retirement for her now means a relocation to Missouri and some land along a lakefront. Vadbunker and husband Kirt Benson, married for 18 years, are the parents of Jenna, 15; and Lindsey, 12. She’s now driving them to activities and all now are enjoying a lakeside life. Water skiing and boating are among her relaxing hobbies.

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