San Diego County CA September 23 2020
Chief Matt Wellhouser is celebrating his 40-year anniversary of serving on the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol. Wellhouser worked his first day in Rancho Santa Fe as a 23-year-old officer on Sept. 2, 1980.
These days it is increasingly rare for anyone to stay at any job for long —according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average time is 4.2 years.
“That really made me feel old,” Wellhouser said. “I never intended to stay for 40 years. When I started, I was 23 years old, I thought ‘I’ll work here for a couple years.’ I think it just grew on me, it is a great place to work.”
“Rancho Santa Fe has been very fortunate to have Matt keeping us safe and secure for 40 years,” said RSF Association General Manager Christy Whalen. “Matt’s relationship with key leaders at the County of San Diego has benefitted this community in many ways and he has earned the respect of the sheriff’s department, highway patrol and local police departments. He balances his law enforcement skills with a high level of customer service and a real concern for members of the community. The Association is proud of Matt’s work and his many contributions to the Ranch.”
Wellhouser grew up locally in Solana Beach and graduated from San Dieguito High School. He was still in college when he started his law enforcement career at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in the weapons training unit, also working patrol and as a reserve deputy.
Law enforcement runs in the family—his grandfather was a deputy sheriff in Montana in the late 1800s, riding a horse to patrol. While his late father Harry Wellhouser worked the bulk of his career as an engineer and nuclear scientist with General Atomics, after he retired he was a reserve deputy sheriff for 10 years and helped start the Senior Volunteer Program.
When Wellhouser went from the sheriff’s department to join the five-year-old Patrol in 1980, the homes in the Covenant did not have street numbers, the Patrol just worked off people’s last names, getting to know the entire community. Street numbers wouldn’t arrive until 1984, when the 911 system came online in the Ranch.
Five years after he started with the Patrol, Wellhouser was promoted to sergeant and soon after took on the role of chief.
“Chief Matt Wellhouser has assembled a professional organization that has made the Rancho Santa Fe area one of the safest places to live in San Diego County,” said Lt. Todd Norton of the North Coastal Sheriff’s Station. “Chief Wellhouser realized early on in his career that communication and cooperation with law enforcement was vital to safety of the community and he has formed a positive working relationship with the Sheriff’s Department.”
As Wellhouser likes to say, he is just the “hood ornament” and it’s his 11 officers who do all the heavy lifting. Many days the chief gets stuck in his office running operations but he does like to get out often and see what’s going on in the community and be a familiar face in the neighborhood.
This March, Wellhouser took on some extra duties after being appointed by Supervisor Jim Desmond to serve on the San Diego County Traffic Advisory Committee, helping to ensure that the county’s roads are safe and efficient through measures such as speed limits, traffic signals and stop signs. The committee has not been as busy during the pandemic as most traffic studies have been put on hold due to lower than normal traffic volumes on the roadways.
Due to the pandemic, the job has been different as well. The Patrol is not interacting with the public as much, calls are down about 10 to 15% from last year and vacation checks, one of the Patrol’s most popular services, were also not the same numbers they usually experience during the summer months. The Patrol has also missed out on some of their more fun assignments such as the Fourth of July parade and Rancho Days, which were canceled this year.
Responding to calls and incidents has been a challenge during the pandemic, making sure that all officers stay healthy. “We have to be cautious but fortunately we haven’t had any problems,” said Wellhouser who quarantined for two weeks as a precaution when his wife was exposed to the virus but neither became sick.
Wellhouser said working in public safety is a difficult, stressful, long-hour job but it is one that he still enjoys. When he looks back, he sees many highlights and the lowlights— there have been some horrible and tragic events such as the 2007 wildfires, accidents, homicides and Heaven’s Gate in 1997, when the bodies of 39 members of a religious cult were found after a mass suicide in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion.
“Part of how you deal with it is compartmentalizing so you’re not always thinking about the bad things because if you did, it would wear you out,” Wellhouser said. “I don’t think about the bad too often. I like to think about the good things and the accomplishments. I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and I try to look at the bright side and have a positive attitude. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have lasted 40 years.”
The Association has a few employees who are nearing the 40-year mark, such as those who work at the golf club and in the maintenance departments. A few Patrol officers have also worked for Wellhouser for 20 years, “Overall it speaks to the quality of the organization,” he said.
RSF Association Assistant Manager Arnold Keene, who has been with the Association for 17 years, said Wellhouser has created a “lasting legacy” in his development of the Patrol over the last 40 years.
“The RSF Patrol is highly respected within the Covenant and regionally with other law enforcement professionals. Matt has achieved this with unmatched dedication, professionalism and integrity,” Keene said. “Matt has been a steady hand in the many challenges that have faced the Association and we are proud that he has been a key to the success of the Association.”
Rancho Santa Fe Review