Jim Jenkins, 70, grew up in Racine but decided to stick around after graduating from UW-Madison. He had a 32-year career working as an investigator for the state Division of Criminal Investigation and supervisor with the state Department of Revenue, including undercover work in narcotics. He also investigated government corruption “back when Wisconsin was a very clean state,” he said.
After retiring from the state in 2003, he worked with youth in a Dane County neighborhood intervention program and as a special education assistant in the Madison schools.
For the last 14 years, though, much of his work has been unpaid, as a volunteer with RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) of Dane County. Its programs range from driving people to medical appointments to helping out in elementary school classrooms. He’s put in some 10,000 hours and is a longtime board member.
Jenkins and his wife, Sue, have three adult children and one grandson, Colin.
How did you get involved with RSVP?
When I retired, I went to the Yellow Pages and I looked up “volunteer.” Here (at RSVP) I met Jan Karst, who is our community connections person who interviews everybody who comes through here and finds out what makes them tick and pairs those people with an organization, and I wound up with the Red Cross. I got involved in disaster preparedness and disaster response, and I did that until just this last year. We would respond to local events, mostly house fires. And we would go on scene and meet with the clients and then get them food, clothing and shelter over the short-term, and we had some case workers who would sometimes work with them on a longer-term situation.
Is Madison big on volunteering?
As a Red Cross person and a person who recruited volunteers, I really didn’t have to do much recruiting. I just waited. Because Madison is full of people with that spirit. There are a lot of people who want to continue thinking and planning and making some kind of a difference.
How important are retirees to volunteerism?
We account here at RSVP for ... millions of dollars worth of service every year that somebody doesn’t have to pay for.
Are there specific skills RSVP looks for?
Not at all. What we’re trying to do now is diversify our volunteer base. So what we’re trying to do is up our recruiting in the African-American community. We’re translating our brochures and things like that into Spanish. We’re connecting with Centro Hispano. We’re connecting with African-American churches. And we have succeeded in bringing in more volunteers from a more diverse background.
What’s it like being an undercover officer?
What TV shows emphasize (are) the dangers. The real pressure is just not being yourself — living a lie, living two lives. I would pretend to be a middle-level drug dealer. There was sort of a macho aspect to doing it, and you’re scared much of the time but you can’t reveal that. This is 1970, ’71, ’72 and I think law enforcement has gotten a lot more hip to the stresses of this kind of work.
How do you feel about drug enforcement now?
The war on drugs seems to be a failure. I was part of the war on drugs — the early war on drugs. It’s not helping us any. We used to work Beloit a lot, and we would bring an undercover agent into Beloit. We’d make 20 cases. We’d make 20 arrests. We’d send some of them to jail. And 20 more guys would fill in because there’s that market. I think we should be regulating it.
What else do you like to do?
I use an iPad Pro and I use an app called SketchBook and I use a stylus and I draw on the screen. I started out doing mostly cars. Now I do a lot of other things, too. It runs in the family. I’ve got all sorts of artists in our family. I was a kid in the classroom drawing cars and my teachers sort of caught on to it and let me do it because I could concentrate.
— Interview by Chris Rickert