Friends remember Rusty Serpa, the leader and public servant

By Manuel C. "Manny" Correira
Posted 2/5/20

It didn’t matter one iota to Russell S. “Rusty” Serpa. Whether working in the family milk delivery business as a youngster, or later on as a public servant in the local police …

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Friends remember Rusty Serpa, the leader and public servant


It didn’t matter one iota to Russell S. “Rusty” Serpa. Whether working in the family milk delivery business as a youngster, or later on as a public servant in the local police department, he was always proud of the community in which he lived.

The retired Bristol police chief passed away on Jan. 31 at the age of 74, after an illness, and left behind a legacy of faithful commitment to his hometown. To many, he was a man for all seasons.

In previous months, Rusty, as he was fondly called by friends and family, visited the local Sip ’n Dip coffee shop on Hope Street, where a number of his friends congregated each morning. They would kid him unmercifully about local news events and other topics of the day. Thankfully, he shrugged it all off with his patented wide smile and stare-down tactic. Rusty loved the environment surrounding him, especially those guys seated at the same coffee shop table. It was a daily ritual which he embraced with open arms.

“I can dish it out, too,” he chuckled during one morning session this past summer. “But, you know I love these guys.”

He also enjoyed discussing his many police department adventures, starting as a patrolman and working his way up through the ranks.

Rusty was also a proud family man. He adored his wife Lydia and his two sons, Russell Jr. and Christopher, and always talked about their personal accomplishments.

As one might expect, Rusty had a ton of friends, not only here in Bristol, but throughout the state and beyond. One of his closest friends was Michael T. Byrnes.

“Rusty and I went to primary and high school together,” he said. “He was at the same time fun loving but also serious. He was always a good friend who would go out of his way to help. As a young man, he went off to Vietnam to do his duty as he saw fit. He remained in the Army for a short time, but it appeared to have a lasting impact.”

Mr. Byrnes continued, “Rusty was a man who was service oriented and joined the Bristol Police Department, and as we know, worked his way up to become a very effective leader of the department. In his last months he, Pete Hewett and I would go out for a drink and chicken wings. We could not but help note his failing health, but true to his life code, he never complained or spoke of his debilitating aliment. He went graceful to the end.”

“I was saddened to hear of his passing,” said good friend, Bob McKenna. “I have known Rusty since I worked at the Bristol Police Department in the 1974-’77 time frame. As a police officer and especially as the chief of police, he always worked towards doing the right thing for the people in the town of Bristol, and if he told you he would do something, he was always a man of his word. I will certainly miss him.”

Retired Bristol Police detective Richard C. “Dickie” Sousa has special memories of Chief Serpa.

“He was very proud of his wife and boys,” said Mr. Sousa. “We talked golf and the yearly New York police golf tournament. It was a great experience, because we would talk law enforcement experiences with the New York P.D., and what a big difference there was between departments. Rusty loved law enforcement in Bristol.”

Rusty Serpa was proud of everything he accomplished during his lifetime. Further proof occurred in 2005, when he was selected chief marshal of the Fourth of July Celebration, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a Bristolian. Rusty was naturally overwhelmed.

“It’s something you never forget,” he once remarked. “I was truly humbled to be chosen as chief marshal. You never really think that someday you will be selected.”

Former Bristol Town Administrator Diane C. Mederos knew Rusty Serpa about as well as anyone.

“Rusty Serpa was appointed chief of the Bristol Police Department at a difficult and challenging time in its history, and Bristol is fortunate for that,” she said. “His intelligence, his strength and his willingness to strive to do the right thing made the department, and the town, a better place. His love for Bristol was only surpassed by his love of his family.”

Make no mistake about it, Rusty Serpa, at times, loved the limelight, especially when he was having his best rounds of golf against friends, or enjoying the honor of driving Miss USA (later Miss Universe) Olivia Culpo in the 2012 Bristol Fourth of July Parade.

Rusty, most assuredly, will be missed, but his broad smile and quick wit will always be remembered by those who loved and respected him.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.