John J. Nolen Sr., 72, retired highway patrolman, auto damage appraiser

John J. Nolen Sr.
John J. Nolen Sr.
Posted: July 02, 2014

John J. Nolen Sr., 72, of Ocean City, N.J., a former Philadelphia highway patrolman, shot in the line of duty in 1970, who rebounded in part by using his own experience to help others, died Friday, June 27.

Mr. Nolen had gone into Penn Presbyterian Medical Center for bypass surgery and died there of complications from a previous lung operation, said his son, John J. Jr.

The turning point in Mr. Nolen's life was the humid night of Aug. 30, 1970, when he and his partner, Thomas J. Gibbons Jr., stopped a stolen Cadillac at 59th Street and Cedar Avenue in West Philadelphia. Protocol did not yet call for protective vests.

Mr. Nolen approached the car's passenger side, Gibbons the driver's side.

"Look out, Tom!" Mr. Nolen yelled. "He's got a -."

Before Mr. Nolen could finish, a .38-caliber bullet fired by the passenger slammed into his right cheek and exited through his left ear. "I thought the left side of my head was gone," he would later say.

But the warning gave Gibbons a split second to move so that the bullet fired by the driver hit his right elbow, not his chest. "There's no doubt in my mind he saved my life that night by shouting a warning to me over the roof of the stolen auto," said Gibbons, who also received a second gunshot wound.

But Mr. Nolen wasn't finished. Seated on the sidewalk with blood pouring from his head, Mr. Nolen managed to shoot and wound an attacker running away. He radioed the location so that backup officers could use the blood trail to make arrests.

Both patrolmen were hospitalized and recovered. Both retired on disability and took up other careers. Gibbons became a reporter for the Bulletin and, later, The Inquirer. But Mr. Nolen's ordeal turned into a lingering battle with emotional stress and alcohol addiction. In 1984, fueled by despair and drink, he barricaded himself in his apartment and fired a random shot out the window with a .357 Magnum.

That day, he stopped drinking. He began two years of counseling at Eagleville Hospital in Montgomery County with his wife, Loretta. Once he was able to plumb his own misery and vulnerability, he got better.

But the most satisfying step he took was establishing the Police Stress Unit in Winslow Township. The nonprofit counsels police in New Jersey who have experienced shootings or other traumas. He stayed active with the group for a decade, and helped out sporadically later.

"I get a great amount of personal reward out of it," Mr. Nolen said in 1991. "Man, I hurt for years. And if there's anything I can do to keep another cop from hurting like I did, that's my reward."

Born and raised in West Oak Lane, Mr. Nolen graduated from West Catholic High School and spent four years in the Marines. He joined the Police Department in 1965. After leaving the force, he began two decades as an auto damage appraiser in South Jersey.

He also spent four years as a charter-boat captain "with the best marketing" and equipment at the Jersey Shore, his son said. "That was my dad. He did everything 150 percent."

Mr. Nolen retired in 2004 so that he could fish and enjoy the beach in Ocean City.

Surviving, besides his son and wife, are sons Jeffrey L. and William; four grandchildren; nieces and nephews; and three sisters. A grandchild died earlier.

A 9 a.m. viewing Thursday, July 3, will be followed by a 10 a.m. Funeral Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, 3948 Central Ave., Ocean City. Interment in Cape May County Veterans' Cemetery will be private.

Donations may be made to the Hero Scholarship Fund, 1617 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Philadelphia 19103.


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