Joe Sherwood: Honoring good police work

It started with the morning paper. Every day, when Joe Sherwood read the news, he was struck by an imbalance he saw in law-enforcement reporting. 

“Anytime there was a bad cop, it would be front-page news,” recalled Sherwood, 95. “They never talked about all the good police work they were doing. I said to my wife one day, ‘Gee, there must be a bunch of good guys out there, too, and we could really do something if we give an award to the ones who fight hate crimes.’ ”

So the Sherwood family partnered with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and in 1996 launched the Helene and Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate. The award is presented annually to a handful of law enforcement personnel who have gone “above and beyond the call of duty” to fight bigotry and racially motivated violence, said Howard Sherwood, Joe’s son. 

It’s a collaboration that reinforces ADL’s already strong relationship with Southern California’s crime-fighting agencies while shining a spotlight on “the folks in the trenches — cops on the street, prosecutors in the courtroom — who do something extraordinary,” added Amanda Susskind, ADL’s Pacific Southwest regional director. “We think it’s very important for people to hear the positive news about our law enforcement partners. They are heroes among us who go unrecognized every day.”

For Joe Sherwood, the prize is just one highlight in a lengthy résumé of giving that spans much of his near-century of life — and that acts as a bonding agent among four generations of his family.

“I’ve always believed in philanthropy,” said Joe, who established the Sherwood Family Foundation, a charitable fund, with his late wife, Helene. “We want the next generations to understand how important charity is.”

In a bright office at the Culver City headquarters of his family’s business, Daniel’s Jewelers, Joe and his sons, Howard and Larry Sherwood, reflect on a legacy of generosity that his great-grandchildren are now starting to emulate. Tall, with tufts of white hair over his ears, Joe smiles when he recounts the places where his family has contributed: A Place Called Home, a youth safe-haven in South Los Angeles; the Children’s Defense Fund; UNICEF; Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles; The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; and, of course, ADL.

“My grandfather is truly remarkable. He is very conscious of the value of a dollar,” said Laurie Bahar, Howard’s daughter and Joe’s granddaughter, who is president of the Sherwood Family Foundation. “My grandparents always instilled in all of us, from early on, the importance of generosity and sharing with the community. They inspired me to follow in their footsteps in every way.”

Born in Denver in 1917, Joe moved with his family to Los Angeles early in his life, and he attended Fairfax High School amid the Great Depression. “Nobody had any money in those days,” he recalled. “A nickel was important.”

His father, who’d gone into the jewelry business, died while Joe was still a teenager — but not before influencing Joe’s career path. Joe was hired at a jewelry company downtown and sold jewelry and watches for 17 years. 

In 1954, he bought a bankrupt jewelry store in Bell Gardens. The area was home to poor migrant workers who had come to California to escape the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Nearby bean fields offered a source of employment. “They used to come in without a shirt on, with no shoes on,” Joe recalled. “Anytime anybody asked me for anything, I just believed in giving, in helping other people. I’d never turn anybody down.”

Joe and Helene let customers buy goods on credit and befriended the locals. Word got around that they dealt fairly with clients, and the business flourished. As their company grew, so did the Sherwoods’ charitable donations. “Between the two of us, anytime we could give something, we would do it,” Joe recalled.

Daniel’s Jewelers now has 61 locations in Southern California. Larry’s son, David Sherwood, is the company’s CEO. 

Joe still goes to the office at least once a week. And although his hearing is declining (he jokes that his favorite word is “what?”), his passion for philanthropy hasn’t dimmed.

“He finds a cause, or he finds someone in need, and he finds a place where he thinks his contribution could make a difference,” said Howard, a member of ADL’s national advisory committee. “He has always talked about how important it is to be there for others.”

With the Sherwood Prize, Joe hopes to show law enforcement officers that the larger community is there for them. Except for a hiatus from 2000 to 2003, the prize has been awarded annually for 17 years. Next year’s honors will be given at the Skirball Cultural Center on March 12, which happens to be Joe’s 96th birthday.

Each year, officers from San Diego to San Luis Obispo are nominated. Four to six prize winners are selected by a panel consisting of local police chiefs, sheriffs and other law-enforcement officials, along with members of the Sherwood family. Honorees receive a plaque and a decorative medal at a celebratory luncheon among their families and peers. 

Past prize winners include a detective who created an educational course on radical Islam, a deputy sheriff who brought together African American and Latino residents to ease racial tensions in Compton, a police sergeant who advocated for the LGBT community at UCLA, and several multi-agency task forces that have investigated and prosecuted some of the region’s most notorious gangs.

The prize “has created an avenue for law enforcement officers who are committed to improving human relations to be honored for their dedication to making a difference in their communities,” said Long Beach Chief of Police Jim McDonnell, who sits on the prize selection panel and also serves as chair of the ADL’s law enforcement advisory board. 

The ADL, which runs hate-crime training sessions with thousands of law enforcement personnel each year, appreciates the Sherwoods’ initiative, Susskind said. “Joe doesn’t want his name on a building; he just wants others to follow his example,” she said. “He is one in a million, and we’re all extremely grateful.”

He is already a role model for his great-grandchildren. Ethan Bahar, 15, has taken part in student council since fourth grade and tutors with KOREH LA. “A lot of that comes from seeing him be a leader,” he said.

For his part, Joe doesn’t like to laud his own achievements. He prefers to talk about those of Sherwood Prize honorees.

“The great reward for me, in giving these prizes, is the opportunity to meet so many good guys. They have done so much for their communities — not for recognition. They just do the right thing at the right time. Just to shake hands with them and say thank you is so important to me,” he said. 

“If God said to me, ‘What did you ever do,’ I might say this is the thing I’m most proud of: We rewarded people who went out of their way to do good for other people.”