Phil Watson may have been born in the bright lights of Hollywood, but he called Tatum home.
He was Tatum’s chief of police from 1989-2008, and died of heart disease in his home on July 31. He was 74 years old.
On Monday, family and friends will say goodbye to Phil during a 10 a.m. memorial service at Tatum United Methodist Church.
Some of those ‘family’ members include former students who would walk home from school, with Phil’s protective eye watching them.
“PC was a constant guardian and father figure for the kids of Tatum,” said former Tatum student Amanda McKee. In her adult years, she worked with Watson as a Tatum police dispatcher.
“As police chief he was active in our schools and in our whole town,” Amanda said. “I can remember walking home from school and he’d drive by and say, ‘Yes?’ and we’d all say ‘No?’ in such a fun manner. I never knew what he meant by saying that, but I knew I could expect to see him every day walking home. About the only times I didn’t see him was because he was in a meeting or doing his job.”
Phil wore more hats than that of a caring, small-town police officer. Retired from the state police, he became Tatum’s police chief and spent time making friendships and relationships with the kids, often as a volunteer coach or as the town’s driver’s education instructor.
“I was so nervous when I took my test, but he was so patient with me,” Amanda said. “As a young adult my first job was at the Tatum PD as a dispatcher. He was a great officer and a great boss. He will be sorely missed.”
In 2013, Richard Williams retired as chief of police in Las Cruces, only to currently serve in a similar position for the Federal Reserve. He currently lives in Las Cruces, but is a Albuquerque native.
“I was assigned to Tatum in 1991 and Phil was police chief,” Richard said. “He took me under his wing and helped me out. He knew everyone and would run me through the new officer orientation where he introduced me to everyone in the community.”
That included then Mayor Betty Rickman, and her granddaughter, the former Stacy Inman.
“I came to Tatum as a single man and left a married one,” Richard said. “A lot of blessings in my life are attributed to Phil. He introduced me to Stacy. I have a loving wife and family and it is because Phil introduced me to Stacy.”
Richard said that one of the greatest lessons he learned from Phil was how to be a small-town cop.
“I think Phil could be described as one of the founders of community policing,” Richard said. “When you are in a town like Tatum and you know mostly everyone, you develop great relationships and partnerships. Being a brand new rookie, you have a lot of desire to go out and do your job. But Phil taught me that doing your job doesn’t always mean making a citation or an arrest. It’s about helping people get through some difficult situations.”
Phil’s approach to policing made his job anything but difficult. His wife, Carol, said that because of his strong relationships with community members, they would tell him anything whenever a crime took place.
“Rather than harassing people, he would help them,” Carol said. “He liked helping people. That’s why he became a volunteer coach. He liked helping the kids succeed. He would run the DARE program here and always had the kid’s attention.”
It’s poetic that Phil, a California boy, would find and fall in love with a girl from New Jersey while they both were working in Vaughn, N.M., a community arguably as small as Tatum. Phil came to Vaughn because of the job. Carol came to Vaughn because of a previous boyfriend. They met when Carol was Vaughn’s dispatcher.
“We got married in Sept. 6, 1980 and moved to Tatum that next year,” Carol said. “I started with the Lea County Sheriff’s Department in 1981 as a dispatcher and then became chief dispatcher. Phil got out of the Air Force while in Albuquerque. He got into the state police and was stationed in Carlsbad before coming to Vaughn.”
Carol said Phil loved the small-town environment, which is why, after getting transferred to Tatum, he retired from the state police when he found out the town was looking for a police chief. That’s where Betty met him.
“I was mayor of Tatum for 16 years and during all of them Phil was my police chief,” Betty said. “When I lost a re-election bid in 2008, I wasn’t too sad. I was tired of the job and that point so was Phil. He had been chief for 20 years and when I left, so did he.”
Betty, who served with the town’s post office, made connections with Tatum’s state legislators. Those relationships led to the opportunity for grant money and in turn a new police station.
“Phil helped design that police station,” Betty said. “He took his job seriously and protected those kids as best he could.”
Being one of those kids Amanda said her fondest memory with Phil was that driving test when she was so nervous
“I was attempting to turn into another lane and out of nowhere this car showed up and zipped right around us,” Amanda said. “Phil calmly grabbed the wheel and pulled us back into the lane. He never marked me down for that. He understood that car came out of nowhere. That was the kind of person Phil was, very patient, kind and understanding. I haven’t grasped it yet that he’s gone. I will miss him so much.”
As will the rest of Tatum.