The Teachers In Our Midst

The chiefs who left a legacy: Kerry Koen and Rick Overman attending the Bronze Star ceremony at Old School Square for retired Officer Skip Brown.

If you’re lucky, teachers show up in your life long after you’ve tossed your last mortar board in the air.

I’m lucky.

I’ve been blessed with the best teachers imaginable.

They’ve taught me lessons large and small. They’ve taught me things I didn’t know, and they have reminded me of things I may have forgotten but shouldn’t have.

The best teachers may not even know that they’re educators, they just share their hard-earned wisdom in doses you can absorb and at times when you need to hear what they have to say.

This piece is dedicated to my good friend Kerry Koen. To call Kerry a teacher is an understatement. He’s more like a professor and I’ve hung on to every word of his eloquent lectures for a long time now.

If the name Kerry Koen rings a bell, it’s because he’s a revered retired fire chief who served both Delray Beach and Boca Raton with distinction.

Chief Koen is universally respected, and that’s a rare thing these days.

Let’s face it; we’re a cynical lot, aren’t we? Not the good readers of this blog of course, but society as a whole.

We’ve become snarky and insensitive. We don’t give weight to expertise, service, integrity, intelligence, and kindness.

Institutions we once had faith in, we no longer trust.

But I still believe.

I believe in the good people I’ve met and grown to love and respect.

In the top tier of that list is my friend and teacher Kerry.

We became friends through my involvement in Delray—first as a reporter, later as a city commissioner and finally as a mayor and now way beyond that blip in my life.

Kerry had left Delray before I got elected and served Boca with distinction before being lured back by City Manager David Harden.

We had a solid relationship during my commission tenure; Kerry taught me a lot about the fire service and the challenges of serving a city as complex as Delray Beach.

Our downtown had come to life on his watch and while that was good, it presents challenges as well, especially if you are in the public safety business. Large crowds, lots of traffic, special events, tourists, alcohol. It’s a lot.

Then 9/11 happened and our world and our little city changed. Now when we rode with firefighters on the bright red engines and handed out treats on Halloween, we would receive calls from panicked parents concerned that the sugar spilled on the kitchen table from their kid’s candy buckets might be anthrax. We found out that several of the 9/11 plotters were living in our city—going to our library, filling prescriptions at our downtown pharmacy, attending our local gyms.

It was the end of the innocence. Our world was forever changed.

In dangerous times, we look for extraordinary leadership. Our little city had that with Chief Koen and Chief Rick Overman, who ran our police department.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Mayor David Schmidt never lost sleep about doings at City Hall because he had faith in city staff. I’ve been thinking about that statement, and it was true for me as well.

I lost sleep over my ability to handle a racially charged shooting, hurricanes, and other controversies but I never lost sleep over whether our fire or police departments could protect and serve us.

I had faith in the men and women who served, and that faith continues today. And in my opinion, Kerry played a big role in building a magnificent Fire Department that continues to serve us long after his retirement.

We can trust that when we dial 911 that we will receive top-notch services. We can trust that if we face an emergency—manmade or Mother Nature- that we are in good hands.

Kerry’s superpower —so to speak— is to always see the big picture. He has an analytical mind and draws connections to the past and the future. He “sees” where we are headed and generously shares his thoughts which are prescient, deeply felt and ultimately hopeful.

He sees trends and is steeped in history.

But he’s also current and forward-thinking, which is of great help to those of us who cherish his friendship.

Still, I find myself thinking of his time as chief and how deeply I admired his approach to the job.

We are a diverse community and Kerry got out of his office at the main station on West Atlantic to engage with civic leaders. He grew close to people like Alfred “Zack” Straghn, a local civil rights icon, and he cultivated strong relationships with the people of Highland Beach. His department served Highland Beach and he took that mission to heart.

The relationship between Delray and Highland Beach was win-win and now that’s gone. Losing that contract is a loss for both municipalities—a mistake that I would wager would not have happened if Kerry could have helped it.

After my 7 years of service, Kerry vowed to stay in touch. And he did. He made the effort. We began to meet for lunch and conversation. There were phone calls and emails too. Every interaction is memorable. He taught and I listened and learned.

He sent me interesting pieces to read, suggested subjects for this blog, shared wonderful photos of his travels and coached me through my ups and downs.

He showed me things—passages from books, meaningful quotes, historical tidbits and invited me into his home to show me a fire bell display he had built over time.

He has such unique insights. He sees the things I miss. He changes how I view issues and how I see the world itself.

And remarkably, I am not alone. There is a large cohort of us who benefit from Kerry’s generous intellect. He has “groups” in Boca and Delray—connections in Chicago, Memphis and Illinois that he tends too lovingly.

Some of us know each other and we marvel at his capacity to build and sustain relationships.

When I think of the richness of this world, how much there is to know, experience and learn, I get overcome with gratitude.

The experts say there is an epidemic of loneliness in this world. Last week, loneliness was labeled a public health issue.

There is no vaccine for loneliness, but there is a remedy: connection.

These days my community involvement is much smaller than it used to be. Some of it is cultural, (Delray is a different place but a new day has dawned!), some of it is where I am in life and in my career, but I’ve tried to keep up as best I can with the special people. We may not see each other much, but the connection is there.

The ties that happily bind us all.

With Kerry Koen it’s easy, because he makes the effort, checks in and because he cares so much.

He’s remarkable. A gift—- to so many lives. And for that I am  forever grateful.




  1. Patricia Sciarillo says

    Isn’t it wonderful that special people in our lives can hsve such an impact on us. We were lucky to have him on our FD and you as Msyor. I am hopeful we will once again find the peace and harmony that I witnessed when I moved here 22 years ago.

  2. Susan Ruby says

    Chief Koen is a very special person. He has kept up with me often through the years. I am so touched that he has. He is a lovely and caring human . A person to be revered and emulated. So glad you wrote about him.

  3. Frances Bourque says

    Just recently Chief Coen became ill and was hospitalized and I found out from another dear friend and hero, Bob Barcinski . Bod shared that Kerry had called and was worried that a very special award he has personally spearheaded for Mr Straghn. Kerry was concerned that the award might be delayed because Kerry was ill.
    This giant of a man with the gentleness of a lamb doing what he always does best….. worrying about someone or thing else!
    He has prayed for me, with me, and encouraged me when things were difficult!
    His own pain is hidden as he ministers with love for so many.
    Be well, dearest man. Keep us on our game and continue to bring out the better angels in each of us! Because you are the Archangel for all of us!

  4. Emily M Lilly says

    What a beautiful message to a beautiful man…..and friend. I worked with Kerry in Boca Raton and could ditto everything you said about him. He truly was a man who cared, a true encourager, an angel in our midst………not only within his profession, but also for all those he encountered in his life. Praying for him today and all the days ahead.

    • Jeff Perlman says

      Beautifully said Emily. An encourager, I love that. So true. And so badly needed. Thanks for sharing. Jeff.

  5. Candace Dye-Etzler says

    Thank you for these weekly reminders of humanity that will ALWAYS be a part of Delray’s history.

  6. Rabbi Suzanne H Carter, D. Div. says

    Thanks Jeff,

    Nice tribute to Chiefs Koen and Overman and well deserved.
    As you well know I served under both of them.

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