Groton - When it comes to a life-altering career move a, James Whittaker of Salem supposes his entry into the municipal police academy at age 48 is probably a big one.
But Whittaker appears to be unfazed by the fact he's training with men and women half his age and must spend nearly six months away from his family. He's also not the oldest. Whittaker said there is a former firefighter from New York at the academy who is a year older.
Whittaker stayed in shape through the years and had no trouble passing the initial physical tests that are a prerequisite to apply. And the way he sees it, when he emerges from the academy later this year and starts a stable, well-paying job at the Groton City Police Department, his family will be all the better for it.
It's also not the first career move for the Montville native, who in 2005 was abruptly forced to give up the job he'd been doing most of his life.
He had spent many summers in New London working for his late grandfather's catering business before he took over in the 1990s. His grandfather, James Sigros, ran several Bank Street restaurants, including the Hygienic until 1972, before taking over catering and concession services aboard ferries run by Cross Sound Ferry. Whittaker had been running the business for about 10 years when the ferry service decided in 2005 to run its own food service.
Whittaker and the 50 or so employees working for him had just several months' notice. His wife, Sharon, was pregnant with their fifth child at the time.
"I had four months to figure something out," Whittaker said. "Having done the same thing for most of my life ... I wasn't sure what to do."
So he made use of some contacts and savings and bought a dump truck for $130,000 and earned his commercial driver's license. He said he'd never driven a truck before but set out to make a living doing road construction work. "I kind of went into it blind. It was a struggle," he admits.
He hung it up in 2012, saying it just wasn't enough, especially with his two oldest kids in college. He sold the truck in January.
"I didn't have a job but enough money from the truck to take a leap of faith," he said of his decision to go for a job in law enforcement.
Faith is something Whittaker is familiar with. He has spent the past several years studying at a Boston seminary to become a deacon. He expects to be ordained in 2015 at St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church in New London.
Police officers and those working with the church are both essentially doing similar work, he said, which is serving the community.
Law enforcement was something he'd thought about after high school, before he went into business administration, but he is color blind, and he always thought he would be ruled out. After speaking with some police officer friends, many of whom are now retired, he learned that it shouldn't be an issue.
Groton City Police Chief Thomas Davoren called Whittaker a "good catch for us" and doesn't see age as any kind of an obstacle.
Whittaker said he was surprised to find how supportive and involved in the hiring process Davoren was.
While Whittaker said some people poke fun at him about his age, the atmosphere at the academy is one of camaraderie, and cadets have no choice but to bond while working each day through a series of military-style drills.
Of the career change, Whittaker said, "This is the next stage and the last stage."