John Warner was enthusiastic, kind and fun ... but serious when he needed to be.
That’s how people who were close to him through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program described the tall, mustachioed officer who taught the anti-drug curriculum throughout Columbia. After the DARE program was cut, he became a school resource officer. He was on the police force for 35 of his nearly 62 years.
Warner died Sunday in Columbia.
He became a police officer at age 21. For the first nine years of his law enforcement career, he worked in Warrensburg. He began working for the Columbia Police Department in 1984. In his early career, he worked as an undercover narcotics officer, on the patrol unit and on a community service unit.
He was also on the department’s SWAT Team for 20 years.
Former Columbia Police Commander Brad Nelson said Warner was a good, hardworking policeman.
“He cared compassionately about the children in the Columbia School District,” Nelson said. “He definitely will be sorely missed.”
The DARE program came to Columbia in 1989, and through it, Warner became a familiar face to students and teachers throughout Columbia. He organized DARE graduations, during which students would read essays about what they’d learned in the program.
Fairview Elementary School teacher Renee Wilcoxson said Warner never made it through a graduation without tearing up. “He was just a larger-than-life guy,” she said. She said Warner may have looked intimidating, “but inside, he was just a big teddy bear.”
He had a great gift for speaking with students, she said, because he was approachable, friendly and projected that he was on their side.
“He would answer questions, but he also was just a friend and someone that they could talk to,” she said.
Kids saw police officers in a different light because of him, Wilcoxson said.
“There’s no one like him,” she said. “He was someone that I looked up to and that I saw kids look up to.”
Warner was the whole package, minus a fraction of a finger or two, which he lost in a table saw accident — an anecdote he used to share with curious students.
Brian Beckman knew Warner through the DARE program and because his dad was on the police force. He said Warner brought love and support to schools and communities and showed “that cops are here, not to just enforce the laws but to teach, to love, to care, to play.”
When Beckman was around 10 years old, Warner asked him if he would dress up as McGruff the Crime Dog, a mascot for the National Crime Prevention Council, for citywide parades. Beckman obliged.
“He was just a very influential, almost fatherly figure to people,” Beckman added.
When the Columbia Police Department ended its participation with the DARE program in 2009, Warner said, “I can say as a 20-year veteran of the DARE program, I’ve seen the positive results over and over again.”
He advocated for continued drug prevention programming and stayed involved with the schools as a resource officer.
Columbia Public Schools Community Relations Director Michelle Baumstark said Warner impacted not only individuals but also Columbia Public Schools as a district. He helped implement safety procedures and protocols throughout the system. For example, he trained teachers in drug awareness and school shooter safety.
“There are a lot of procedures and protocols that came out of his advice,” Baumstark said.
Warner also served on the Columbia City Council’s Substance Abuse Advisory Commission, the Breathe Easy Coalition and the Columbia/Boone County Senior Network and was chair of the Columbia Community 2000 Drug Free Task Force.
He retired from the Columbia Police Department in 2014 and, for the last four years of his life, worked for the Missouri School Board Association’s Center for Education Safety.
According to an obituary submitted by Memorial Funeral Home, Warner is survived by his wife of 25 years, Diane Kartheiser-Warner; his mother, Sandra McKim of Conway, Arkansas; his half-sister, Pam Cossey of Greenbriar, Arkansas; and uncles, aunts and cousins. He has two sons from a previous marriage, Ben and Ryan.
A visitation for Warner is scheduled from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Memorial Funeral Home.