That turquoise 1957 Chevy and Frank Denning, its lead-footed driver, were well known to police officers in Great Bend, Kan.
And riding in the back seat of some of their police patrol cars became pretty familiar to him.
Then one of those officers took an interest in the teenage hot-rodder and suggested he might try a place in the front seat.
Denning took the advice and turned it into a law enforcement career that has spanned more than four decades and ends in January when he retires as Johnson County sheriff.
“This has been one hell of a job,” Denning said. “I’m going to miss it.”
Under Denning’s leadership, Johnson County has completed a major jail expansion and the construction of state-of-the-art communications and laboratory facilities that have garnered national and international recognition.
But while he has embraced the kind of 21st century science and technology that was unheard of when he first became a cop, Denning has never forgotten that the key to good police work still comes down to the personal interactions between officers and the community they serve.
“You have to treat people humanely and fairly,” Denning said. “Our mission is to keep our community safe, and to act with integrity, honesty, service and above all fairness.”
The new sheriff, Calvin Hayden, will be sworn in Jan. 9.
Denning’s journey to the helm of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office began as a volunteer reserve officer in his hometown of Great Bend.
His first full-time job was in Larned, Kan. From there, he worked as an officer in Great Bend and Garden City, Kan., before the lure of a bigger department with more opportunity and more pay brought him to Johnson County.
Meeting Sheriff Fred Allenbrand for the first time was a bit intimidating for the young new deputy.
But that didn’t stop Denning from giving a brash answer when the legendary lawman asked Denning what he aspired to.
“I want your job,” Denning told him.
To his credit, Allenbrand didn’t hold it against the young upstart, but instead resolved to give him every opportunity to do just that.
Like all new deputies, Denning was assigned to the jail.
His first day on the job was memorable.
“It was the first time I ever saw a woman with a badge,” he said.
That woman was a lieutenant. And she was his boss.
And the first order she gave him was to go stand in the corner and wait for her to tell him what to do.
“There was a homicide last night in tank four,” she told him.
Denning began to wonder if he had made a mistake when he came to the big city.
“Be careful what you ask for,” he thought.
But working in the jail turned out to be a very good training ground for learning how to manage people, he said.
And when he was offered a chance to transfer to road patrol, Denning chose to stay at the jail.
“I knew what it was like to work a car wreck in a Kansas winter,” he said.
But he later accepted the road patrol assignment and did it for about a year when he was offered the chance to become a detective.
“I found a home,” Denning said.
He carved out a niche investigating crimes against women and children, and later investigated homicides.
During his stand as a detective, Denning met a young assistant district attorney named Robin Lewis.
They have now been married for 28 years.
After 14 years as a detective, Denning got to achieve his goal of becoming a police chief and took over the Roeland Park Police Department.
He served six years as chief before John Foster, another Johnson County law enforcement legend who had succeeded Allenbrand as sheriff, asked him to be his undersheriff — the department’s second-in-command.
When Foster died 18 months later, Denning assumed he would take over as sheriff. He assumed wrong.
Johnson County’s Republicans would caucus to pick the new sheriff.
“I was totally oblivious to politics,” he said.
When asked if he was a conservative or a moderate, Denning said, “I’m a deputy sheriff.”
He lost the caucus by two votes and for the first time since he was 12, Denning was out a job.
“I actually retired,” he said. “I was raising horses and drinking coffee with some good old boys.”
Three months was enough of that, and when people started asking Denning to run for sheriff, he decided to do it.
But first he had to learn to be a politician.
“I was jerked out of my comfort zone,” he said.
“Working rooms” and shaking hands was no fun for him.
But Denning’s first campaign, a decidedly grass-roots effort, prevailed and in 2005 he took office as Johnson County sheriff.
During his last year in office, Denning has experienced some of his worst moments in law enforcement.
In September, Johnson County Master Deputy Brandon Collins was killed when an allegedly drunk driver slammed into the deputy’s vehicle during a traffic stop. That driver was arrested a short time later and is now charged in the case.
“It was the first time I lost one of my own,” he said.
Denning went to the scene of the crash, then had to visit a young widow and tell her her husband wasn’t coming home.
A month later, a Johnson County deputy was kidnapped from outside the detention center in Olathe and sexually assaulted.
Though it had been years since his detective days, Denning took an active role in the investigation that helped find two suspects who are now charged with attacking the deputy.
“I worked that one full time,” he said. “I pushed our guys pretty hard. They (the suspects) had to come off the street.”
As he leaves office, Denning said he is proud to be leaving an organization staffed by so many talented, dedicated men and women.
“They are doing the right thing for the right reasons,” he said.
As for him, Denning intends to continue compiling information about the history of the office and would someday like to see a Johnson County law enforcement museum.
He also plans to indulge his interest in hot rods that he never outgrew.
He plans on doing plenty of drag racing with his 1971 Chevrolet Nova and its 454-cubic-inch engine.
But unlike his teen days, his racing will be done on legal tracks around the Midwest.
“I don’t want to be riding in back seats anymore,” he said.