John J. Nolen, 72, Highway Patrol officer shot on duty

Posted: July 02, 2014

THAT SUNDAY night, Highway Patrol Officer John Nolen and his partner, Tom Gibbons, were riding down Roosevelt Boulevard on their way to West Philadelphia when John turned to Tom and said: "I've got good news for you. We only have to work to 10 o'clock."

"How come?"

John explained that because he had a rare blood type, whenever he was called on to give blood, he got half a night off.

He was to give blood for a supervisor's wife who had just given birth, and John and his partner would enjoy getting a break.

It never happened.

It was about 8:30 that night of Aug. 30, 1970, when they pulled over a stolen Cadillac at 59th Street and Cedar Avenue and the two occupants came out firing.

Both men were badly wounded - John was given last rites by a priest in the hospital - but survived to go on to fulfilling lives, John as a businessman and stress counselor, and Tom as a newspaperman.

John J. Nolen, a former Marine who always carried himself with a proud military bearing, a crack shot and daring motorcycle trick rider, died Friday. He was 72 and lived in Ocean City, N.J.

John suffered complications after bypass surgery and doctors at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center wanted family permission to keep him alive on a ventilator.

No way.

"It was completely unacceptable," said his son John J. Nolen Jr. "I told the doctors my father had been a Marine, a Highway Patrol officer, and he wouldn't have wanted to be kept alive that way.

"His father died young of emphysema and he remembered the oxygen tanks in the basement, and he wouldn't have wanted that to happen to him."

The trauma of being shot plagued John for years after the incident, and on July 30, 1984, the emotional pain reached a crisis. John, drinking heavily and estranged from his family, barricaded himself in his apartment in Northeast Philadelphia and fired a .357 Magnum out a window.

Tom Gibbons and other friends arrived and were able to persuade him to go to Eagleville Hospital. After a month there, John gradually was able to overcome his demons, quit drinking, get back with his family and go on to a productive life.

The Police Stress Unit John operated in Winslow Township, N.J., saved many police officers who had been shot or suffered other kinds of trauma, from hurting the way he had.

"Man, I hurt for years," he told the Inquirer in 1991. "And if there's anything I can do to keep another cop from hurtin' like I did, that's my reward."

Both John Nolen and Thomas J. Gibbons Jr., son of a former police commissioner, were proud members of the Highway Patrol motorcycle drill team that performed on their Harleys at the annual Hero Scholarship Thrill Show.

They lived less than a block apart in Bustleton, and they rode their motorcycles together back and forth from Kennedy Stadium and Thrill Show practice.

In fact, they had been practicing for the Thrill Show to be held just a week after the shooting, which was why they were together on patrol that fateful night.

The weekend of the shooting was a bloody one. Self-professed black radicals shot Fairmount Park Sgt. Frank Von Colln to death in the Cobbs Creek Park headquarters the night before, and wounded two other officers.

When John Nolen and Tom Gibbons pulled over the stolen Cadillac, they didn't expect violence. But the man in the passenger seat got out and fired at John with a .38-caliber pistol. The bullet entered his cheek and exited through his ear.

Before he was shot, John managed to yell at Tom, "Look out, Tom, he's got a -" before the bullet stopped him.

"I firmly believe that John's shouted warning to me over the roof of the stolen car saved my life," Tom said yesterday. "I shifted my stance sideways, and the driver shot me in the right elbow instead of my chest. But more gunfire hit me in the back and a third slug grazed my right wrist."

As for John, "he was knocked unconscious, came to, and then got a shot off at the passenger running from the stolen car south on 59th from Cedar," Tom said. "All that, despite blood pouring from his head wound like a faucet."

Both men had to endure multiple surgeries, but both recovered. John went on to manage auto-body shops in Philadelphia and South Jersey. For a time, after his retirement, he captained a 38-foot charter boat out of Ocean City.

"John was a great cop, but most of all a fine friend," said Tom Gibbons, who became a police reporter for the old Evening Bulletin and then the Inquirer, from which he retired.

John was born in Philadelphia to James E. and Frances Nolen. He graduated from West Catholic High School for Boys, and entered the Marine Corps. He served four years, stationed stateside.

He married the former Loretta Scholtz in 1962.

John Jr. said his father was always there for him and other family members. "He was an inspiration, an honest man," John said. "When I started my own business 26 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to do it without his help."

Besides his wife and son, he is survived by two other sons, Jeffrey and William; three sisters, Janet Fitzgerald, Patricia Weber and Dorothy Manion; and five grandchildren.

Services: Funeral Mass 10 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, 3948 Central Ave., Ocean City. Burial will be in the Cape May County Veterans Cemetery in Cape May Court House.

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