Given the title of “Napa County’s High Sheriff” by friends and colleagues, John Claussen was at the helm of that local law enforcement department for five consecutive terms. Wearing the Napa County Sheriff badge from Jan. 1947—Dec. 1966, Claussen held one of the longest tenures of that office.
Born on Jan. 9, 1907 in Napa, Claussen lived out his life in Napa County. After dropping out of high school, Claussen attended a local business college, but his career in the business world was brief. Within a couple of years, Claussen began his lifelong law enforcement career.
Following a short stint as a Napa police officer, Claussen became a Napa County Sheriff’s deputy. While John Steckter was sheriff, 1926-1944, Claussen served as a an undersheriff and continued in that capacity under interim Sheriff Joseph Moore, 1944-1946. During those years, Claussen’s name appeared in numerous local newspaper reports, including the following account.
The Napa Register reported, “Unlucky is the word for a character who wound up in the Maison De Steckter last week for drunken driving. Undersheriff John Claussen and Delph Roxroth were driving along at Yountville, minding their own business as well as any officer on the prowl can, when a car approached at a high speed.
“It looked dangerous and the law men pulled over. Even at that they were almost run down. The questionable car increased its speed after the scrape and whizzed off north at a fantastic rate. Pulling his Stetson down over his ears, Johnnie Claussen twisted the tail of his Buick, but the fugitive was fast drawing away.
“On a gentle curve north of Yountville, the fleeing car careened and overturned. The officers halted and ran to the wreck, expected to find a corpse. Instead, when they pulled open the door — the car was on its side — up rose a bleary individual clasping a jug of red wine. Handing it to the officers, he whispered hoarsely: ‘Get rid of this quick, for God’s sake, before the cops get here!’”
Although that incident was an amusing moment in his career, Claussen was very serious about law enforcement. With the encouragement of the retiring Sheriff Moore, Claussen ran for Napa County sheriff. The local voters overwhelmingly endorsed his bid for that office.
About two years after Claussen became sheriff, he was accepted into the FBI National Academy. The 12-week program was tailored for local lawmen. Although the heat and humidity of Washington, DC challenged Claussen, his performance received the notice of the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He praised Claussen on his accomplishments at the academy, including being selected as his class’s president and valedictorian.
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Upon his return home, Claussen’s calendar was filled with local and state governmental meetings. In 1960 he served as the California State Sheriffs Association president. However, his number one priority was the local youth.
His greatest joy was talking with students as they toured through the county jail. Apparently, they also enjoyed their interaction with Claussen as shown by the following notes:
“Dear Sheriff Claussen, Thank you for showing me the jail, guns, tellatape and radio-telephone. Having my fingerprints taken was fun. Thanks again! Hope to see you soon. Sincerely Yours, David Stroud,” was dated November 10, 1960.
“Dear Sheriff Claussen, thank you so so much for that Sheriff’s badge. You are kind indeed! I’ll never forget this Day. You are the nicest Sheriff I know. Your friend, Jane Fargo Mc Nealy, Hon. Deputy Sheriff,” dated August 18, 1953.
While those moments were fun and memorable, another interaction with a local child was remembered as heart-stopping. As Claussen worked at the American Legion Rodeo, a raffle drawing was taking place with a young child drawing the tickets. Suddenly, a Brahma bull broke our of his chute and charged towards the child. Claussen quickly jumped forward and snatched the youngster up and out of harm’s way.
Although Napa County residents were grateful to Claussen, they eventually voted him out of office. In 1966, they elected Earl Randol as Napa County sheriff. Just before Claussen left office he was lauded during three farewell dinners. A letter written by Curtis O. Lyman of the FBI expressed the general sentiment. “It is with regret that we see you leave the field of law enforcement. You have made a considerable contribution to good law enforcement through your leadership, training and experience, and your lost will be felt.”
On May 26, 1987, 80-year-old Claussen passed away from colon cancer to leave behind his 20 year legacy as Napa County’s High Sheriff.