He was undercover long before he put on a holster and a badge.
A wayward kid in cheap, dime-store sneakers trying desperately to pass himself off as a typical middle-class student in a suburban New Jersey town near Princeton.
He avoided cafeteria lines at school so his friends wouldn't notice the state-issued, free-lunch card that laid bare his family's financial struggles. He dug through Goodwill-style clothing bins in parking lots, looking for something that might fit, and praying to God that it wasn't a shirt classmates might recognize once belonged to them.
When neighborhood kids would talk about being punished for breaking some household rule, he would pretend he'd also been grounded so his friends might be fooled into thinking his mother cared enough to notice. Eventually, he became the bully who learned that his fists could postpone, if not eliminate, a world of problems.
So it might have seemed odd when he announced he had taken it upon himself to enroll in a Big Brothers Big Sisters program at age 12. His mother was furious, not wanting strangers to get a glimpse inside their haphazard lives.
What did he think he would get out of this? New friends? New clothes? New toys?
What no one understood is that future Port Richey police Chief Rob Lovering wanted something else.
A new future.
• • •
The fancy hotel ballroom in downtown Tampa is filled with high rollers. Business leaders. Politicians. Recognizable faces in hard-to-pronounce designer gowns and tuxes.
They are here for a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, and a thousand pairs of eyes are on Lovering, 51, as he talks about what the organization can achieve.
At a table in a far corner of the room sits 72-year-old Bill Patchett. Slender, with a neatly trimmed white goatee, Patchett was the Big Brother who rescued Lovering from a violent, unruly life. It had been nearly 20 years since they had seen one another, and Lovering had no idea Patchett interrupted a family vacation to fly to Tampa.
As the chief tells his story, Patchett's head bobs and tears begin to roll.
It's not the details of Lovering's upbringing that have Patchett's face buried in his hands. It's the realization, decades in the making, of what their time together meant.
"Bill gave me hope. Bill gave me an understanding that the person who brings you into this world doesn't have to define your world,'' Lovering said days later in his Port Richey office. "He gave me the understanding that, even at a young age, I could define my fate. I was the one who had to make choices for myself and not allow my environment to make choices for me.
"I had my bumps in the road, but Bill was there the whole time. It always surprised me that he didn't give up on me.''
Back in the mid-1970s. Patchett and his wife, Linda, had not yet had their first child, and he figured signing up as a Big Brother seemed worthwhile, but hardly life-altering.
And it's not like their first meeting — a bicycle ride through pastures — was a portent of the bond to come. Patchett described Lovering at 12 as street-savvy and combative.
But the kid was willing to learn. And he was willing to change. He listened when Linda told him to use better grammar. And he took it to heart when Bill assured him that some missteps were inevitable.
They did the usual things — they played catch and went to New York Giants games and arranged hiking trips — but mostly they talked. And their relationship grew.
"Linda was telling someone the other day that if you're looking for instant feedback and kudos, this isn't necessarily the right fit for you,'' Patchett said. "It's not like the light immediately comes on and you say, 'Ah-ha, it worked.'
"For me, it didn't fully materialize until years later. I finally understood it when I came to Tampa for his wedding, and I got off the plane and he was standing there dressed and pressed in his uniform. It was the first realization of how much he had changed his life.''
A final grievous mistake — and fight — had led to an arrest for battery as a teenager and Lovering joined the Army as a way to get his record expunged.
When he got out, he applied at the Tampa Police Department and, 29 years later, retired as a captain before taking the job as the Port Richey chief.
He spent most of his career working in high-poverty areas by choice, and later he became the department's liaison with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay.
After Saturday night's gala, he ran into a woman who told him she had given up being a Big Sister because she felt her Little Sister was merely in it to acquire gifts. Lovering tried to explain that it was a natural reaction for a child who has nothing.
It's up to the Bigs to help the children realize that the greatest gifts come with help and patience and love.
"Little kids recognize when the people in their lives have given up on them,'' Lovering said. "It took me a long time to let Bill in my life because adults had always failed me. It was only through his understanding that I came to trust him.
"For the rest of my life, Bill was always in my head when I had to make choices. I had that perspective of what was right and wrong from somebody I admired. Somebody who I was always wanting to make proud.''