A single-vehicle crash in Madison County Friday afternoon claimed the life of a Poplar Bluff woman who had spent her Probation & Parole career helping others better themselves.
At about 2:45 p.m., Debbie Collins, who had served as Probation & Parole District No. 25 administrator since 2004, was southbound in a 2007 Jeep when it ran off of U.S. 67, three miles south of Fredericktown, Mo., according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Collins’ Jeep went down an embankment, where it overturned.
Collins was taken to Madison Medical Center in Fredericktown, where she was pronounced dead at 3:35 p.m. by a doctor there. She was 55.
When the crash occurred, Collins was returning from St. Louis, where “we were observing a veteran treatment court,” explained Jeanne Huffman, administrator for the 36th Judicial Circuit’s speciality courts. “We are beginning to plan and implement a veterans court with the (John J. Pershing) VA hospital.”
Because of the collaborative nature of the program, Huffman said, Collins, along with other Probation and Parole officials, were in attendance to see what role probation officers would have.
“She was there to learn and be supportive,” Huffman said. ” … All she wanted was to make things work.”
Collins’ “last thing” involved getting “something started to help returning veterans … to help them be successful when they come back with problems,” said James Berry, the district administrator of the Probation & Parole Office in Dexter.
Collins had what Berry described as a good view and believed “the best thing you can do for public safety” is to have a “successful client, someone who is not on drugs, is working and is successful in the community.
“Sometimes we lose sight of that … you really create public safety when (the clients) are doing well.”
Berry said Collins was a wonderful person who worked “so hard to help other people.
“Rehabilitation and achieving client success were really her focus.”
Having previously worked for Probation & Parole, Huffman said, she knows Collins believed in not only helping people, but in giving them opportunities.
“She supported staff members who advanced in their careers,” Huffman said. “She supported me in my new position.”
Huffman described Collins as a “true professional” in the community. “I liked her as a professional colleague, but I liked her even more as a friend,” she said.
According to Huffman, there was never a time when Collins said “no” to a request.
Associate Circuit Judge John Bloodworth agreed.
“It was hard to get her to say no to anything you would ask her to do,” Bloodworth said. ” … She never complained and always wanted to help.”
Even after Department of Corrections’ policy said probation officers could no longer complete bond investigations for the courts, Collins did them herself, Bloodworth said.
These reports, Bloodworth said, were lengthy investigations and required interviewing the prisoner, as well as contacting employers and researching the person’s criminal history.
“She would write them herself as the district director (because) she knew they were such an important thing” and were needed to protect the community as the court made decisions about setting bonds, Bloodworth said.
“I appreciated that so much,” he said. “… Every time I saw her, I thanked her for what she did for me.”
When Berry became district administrator at Dexter, “she helped me tremendously,” he said. ” …She just always worked very well with me.
“She made you feel you were part of the decisionmaking process even when I was a PO and she was my supervisor.”
What impressed Berry about Collins was how she started as a secretary and worked her way up to “running the entire place.”
Max Clodfelter, who was then the district No. 25 administrator, said he initially hired Collins as a clerical person.
“She had pretty high aspirations; she wanted to be a probation officer,” Clodfelter explained. “She attended night school, graduated and was immediately hired.”
At that time, Clodfelter said, he didn’t have any vacancies in the Poplar Bluff office, so Collins worked in the Sikeston office for a couple of years before transferring to Poplar Bluff.
“She was an excellent field officer,” Clodfelter said. “She had all the skills and talents and really did a wonderful job.”
Collins subsequently was promoted to unit supervisor, and “for many years after that, we worked together really well running the office,” Clodfelter said.
When Clodfelter retired, he said, there wasn’t much hesitation as to who his replacement would be.
“She led the Poplar Bluff office through the transition from the regular office everyone was familiar with to the Community Supervision Center (CSC) they are in now,” Clodfelter said. “To my knowledge, it was a pretty smooth transition.”
The CSC opened in October 2008 and clients reside there as they work to become taxpaying, lawabiding citizens again.
Berry said adding the CSC and another 19 employees made Collins’ district, which served Butler, Wayne, Ripley and Carter counties, one of largest in the state.
Collins’ death will be a big loss to Probation & Parole, according to Joel Bearden, a local probation officer.
With a vast amount of knowledge and experience, “a large resource we relied on is gone,” Bearden said.
“Debbie made tremendous contributions to our community, both in her work and her private efforts to aid troubled individuals in getting the proper focus and priorities in their lives,” said Presiding Circuit Judge Mike Pritchett. “She will be sadly missed.”
“She’ll certainly be missed by me, but she’ll be a loss to Butler County justice that’s for sure; she was a wonderful person,” Bloodworth said.
Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Barbour described Collins as being “top notch; she was good people.”
Collins, he said, had served as court liaison while W. Robert Cope was presiding circuit judge and before “she started running the place. She was good.”
With a strong work ethic, Collins was “really good at what she did; she was smart, conscientious and level headed,” Barbour said.
Former presiding circuit judge, Mark Richardson, agreed.
“Debbie touched a lot of lives; professionally and personally, I can honestly say I’ve never known a more decent, wonderful human being in her personal life and her professional life as a mother and manager of people,” Richardson said.
Collins, he said, was a solid person who never wavered.
“When other people were losing their heads, she was the calming force, the soothing force,” Richardson said. “She had all the attributes in life that everyone wishes they had.”
Over the years, Richardson said, he has been close both professionally, as well as personally, with Collins’ and her family.
“It goes back to actually when their kids were born and they stayed at the same baby sitters as our kids,” Richardson said. ” … Her older son (Grant) and my son were very best friends growing up and both of her sons (Grant and Blake) were Eagle Scouts in my troop.”
Richardson said Collins’ husband, Mike, and he coached sporting teams together, while he and Collins first worked together in 1980 when he joined the Butler County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office as an assistant prosecutor.
Collins, he said, went on to work in Mark Kennedy’s civil law office before joining Probation & Parole.
Collin’s death, he said, is a “tragic, tragic set of circumstances.”
According to Huffman, Collins had entered a new chapter of her life with the recent birth of her first grandchild.
“She adored that little girl; it’s so sad (because) she got what she wanted … that little girl,” she said.
Funeral arrangements are pending with Cotrell Funeral Service.