It’s Time: Lt. Will Zilka to Retire from the Wyoming Highway Patrol
Badges worn by Lt. Will Zilka with the Wyoming Highway patrol. Zilka will retire on Monday, Dec. 3
When he first walked into a Wyoming Highway Patrol Office in 1991, then a fresh-faced college graduate, Lt. Will Zilka had only been looking for one thing — a job.
But over the many years he’s patrolled Wyoming’s highways, he came to realize that being a member of WHP is more than just a job, it’s a way of life. He became a member of a close-knit family brought together by a shared commitment to serve and protect.
And now, Will’s ready to unpin the badge and hang up the uniform that he was worn day and day out since the day he graduated from the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy.
Retirement looms on the horizon, and Will is ready for it.
Jobs were scarce when Will graduated college with a degree in criminal justice, but he set out from his Minnesota home in high spirits, looking for work.
Will is a firm believer that coincidences don’t exist, but even he had to admit that the way he found himself in Wyoming was “weird” when his friend, whom Will did not identify, approached him with news. The WHP was looking to bolster it’s ranks with an additional 20 troopers.
‘Well, I thought, that’s way better than the odds I’ve been dealing with, so I’ll give it a shot,” Will recalled.
With minimal funds at his disposal, Will couldn’t afford to make the trek to Wyoming on his own, but he gave his friend $20 for gas, charged a hotel room to a credit card “he couldn’t afford,” and accompanied his friend to the Cowboy State.
Will’s plan: to work for two to three years, gain some valuable experience, and head back home to Minnesota.
The hiring process went smoothly for Will, the same cannot be said for his friend who failed the written exam on the first day.
“I felt kind of bad because he had to wait around for two days,” Will remembered with a slightly apologetic smile.
The WHP hired Will and sent him on to the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy from which he graduated in August 1991.
When he was assigned to the patrol unit in Rock Springs, however, Will quickly learned that the road was no place for his nice, naïve mannerisms that had accompanied him from Minnesota.
“I think it took me two years before I believed someone could look me dead in the eye and lie to me,” he said.
On your own
For a state trooper, learning how to talk to people is crucial. Unlike city or county law enforcement officers, back up can be 30 miles away or more.
Most of the time, a trooper is on his or her own. But the prospect of not having backup readily available never really bothered Will.
“I don’t know if I wasn’t smart to be aware that I should be,” Will laughed. “Certainly, you’re aware of it. But I always felt that I had the homefield advantage.”
The odds are, at times, stacked against a trooper, especially if there are multiple occupants in a vehicle or a particularly difficult character.
But Will learned that his words could get him out of nearly all kinds of trouble, just as they could get him into it.
“You just learn how to talk to people,” Will said. “I’ve always thought that it was my job to convince people that it was actually in their best interest to do what I was asking them to do.”
A year and a half after he was hired on at the office in Rock Springs, he found himself called into he patrol sergeant’s office.
Will’s first though was “great, what’d I do?”
But he wasn’t about to be penalized for an infraction, he found his sergeant sitting at a desk, a memo placed before him.
The memo said that it had been written by Will, but it hadn’t, and said that Will was applying to become a field training officer.
“I didn’t want it, but we weren’t given a choice,” Will laughed.
It was the beginning of his teaching and instructing phase, something that Will had been drawn towards since his time in college.
Teaching, whether it be in a classroom or on the side of a road, has dominated Will’s career ever since and he has only one goal: to make Wyoming’s roads a safer place.
Now, 27 years, 3 months, and 21 days since the day he pinned on the badge, it’s time for Will to move on.
He’s not burnt out on the job, he still loves it and the people he’s gotten to know over the course of his career.
“I’m still capable of doing this job,” Will explained. “It’s just time not to.”
He’s not moving on to another law enforcement position.
“I never had any intention of wearing any other badge than this one,” Will said, pointing to the star on his chest. It’s not for lack of offers, he’s had other agencies around the country reach out and try to recruit him to their ranks.
Instead, Will’s chosen to join a local propane company, where he will work as a safety and compliance inspector.
He’s not about to do so with a big announcement either, recognition isn’t something Will’s been a big fan of.
“I’ll put it this way, some people want a big wedding, and some people want to run away and elope,” said Will.
He was even hesitant to take part in this interview, allowing only a simple photo of his badges to accompany this story.
“Those tell my story better than anything,” Will stated.
His time with the WHP will come to an end on Monday, Dec. 3.