DADE CITY — Ray Velboom gazed at the two men outside his car window. The pair sat huddled around an outdoor table, deep into a game of cards.
Then, remembers his longtime assistant Terri Reed, the former Dade City police chief called out.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," he said. "I'm just checking to see if you want to deal me a hand."
That moment a few years ago captured why community members and colleagues respected the chief, who died Oct. 27 from throat cancer. He was 67.
A law enforcement officer in Florida for more than 40 years, Mr. Velboom made a career off talking to people as if he weren't a cop. His method endeared him to Dade City, where he served the last decade of his life. It spoke to an outlook he held close — that to navigate crisis, you had to loosen up.
Raymond Eldon Velboom was born on Jan. 15, 1951, in Clearwater, to Ralph and Ethel Velboom.
He had wanted to be an officer since his early years, his wife Julie Scott told the Tampa Bay Times. Like many boys, he idolized police officers and firefighters.
"The amazing thing is, that never changed," said Scott, who married him in 1995.
Mr. Velboom graduated from Clearwater High School in 1969 and headed to Florida State University, where he earned a degree criminal justice.
He worked as a probation and parole officer before joining the Orlando Police Department. In 1980, he became a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, working first on the governor's protective detail and later as an intelligence supervisor.
Jim Sewell, a retired assistant commissioner of the FDLE, entered the department about the same time and soon began working with Mr. Velboom.
They became lifelong friends.
"He was splendid dealing with locals," Sewell said. "He was concerned about people. There was a sensitivity to Ray that we didn't always see in a career cop."
Mr. Velboom looked after big names and into big cases. But he never strayed far from the people on the ground.
He brought that philosophy to the Dade City Police Department, which he joined in 2008, after a one-year retirement.
The chief would drive around the city after his shifts ended, windows down. He'd stop and chat and listen to concerns.
Mr. Velboom hated when people belittled "the other side of the tracks," said his wife, and often visited neglected places. He wanted to make his community comfortable.
"Being with him for 10 minutes, you felt at ease," said Reed, his assistant until his June retirement from the Dade City department.
He wanted people to relax, including his employees.
"It's okay to go out and decompress," he told Reed. "That way, when you come back, you're fresh."
Sewell said his friend followed that advice: "To reach and touch something to get away from the heaviness of what we do is important, and it was important to Ray."
Mr. Velboom explored nature, biking trails and tromping through swamps in search of wildlife to photograph.
Indoors, he cooked. He'd stare at the pantry, turn to the fridge and before his wife knew it, he'd have a meal ready. With food came drinks — he favored tonic mixed with Tanqueray-brand gin.
Cancer changed things.
Mr. Velboom could barely eat over the last year of his life. He underwent surgery in the spring to remove his voicebox. He could talk only through gestures, text-to-speech programs or an electronic writing tablet that he toted.
"It took away so many things he loved," Scott said. "In spite of that, he had the most phenomenal attitude."
When he arrived at a hospice facility in Zephyrhills, a nurse began wiping his face with a damp wash cloth.
"Okay, chief, I'm going to make you comfortable," she told him.
The idea must have sounded familiar. He turned toward her and smiled.
Contact Justin Trombly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JustinTrombly.