In one of Elizabeth Heimdal’s favorite pictures, she’s 3 years old, wearing a pink dress, white tights, white shoes and a big pink bow.
She’s also sporting shooting glasses, earmuffs and a .22-caliber rifle.
“Dad is right behind me, ready to help if he needs to at all,” Elizabeth said of her father, Dwight Stearns.
“He would always tell me, 'When you’re ready to start shooting, just let me know and we’ll go shoot,’” Elizabeth added with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m three so I can shoot now.’”
That scene — her dad a steady hand, always ready help someone learn the finer points of shooting — perfectly encapsulates the passions Dwight held dear: family, friends and firearms.
After a nearly four-decade career in law enforcement, Dwight’s watch ended on Dec. 17 when he died from complications of COVID-19 at a Des Moines hospital. He was 64.
Born on a century farm in Lucas, Dwight graduated from Chariton High School in 1974. He joined the Army, staying three years, including one in Japan, before returning to Iowa.
He was hired by the Earlham Police Department in 1980 and served for 31 years, retiring as the chief in 2011. But Dwight just couldn’t sit still. In retirement, he joined the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office as a transport officer, responsible for driving prisoners to and from court.
Dwight hunted when he was younger, Elizabeth said, but didn’t discover his deep love of shooting until he was in the military. Widely recognized as an expert teacher and mentor, he was a member of the NRA, CIPS Shooting Club and served as a firearms instructor for the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy.
“Being beaten by a former student was a source of great pride,” his family wrote in his obituary.
If the sheriff’s office ever had an officer who needed a little extra training or some one-on-one coaching, they could always turn to Dwight, Dallas County Sheriff Chad Leonard said.
“Dwight had such a passion for firearms and the shooting industry,” Chad said. “I don’t know the tricks of the trade like he does, but he was able to get anybody passed through a qualification after he teaches them.”
After just one class with Dwight, Aleasha Keubler, a fellow transport officer, was shooting targets with her eyes closed.
“He took us out one day, we literally did 10 shots, did our qualification and passed it like that,” she said of her and another deputy. “It was night and day. We just looked at each other and said, ‘Did we just do this in a matter of minutes compared to all week?’”
“He knew exactly what he was doing," she added. "He was so patient and so kind and confident in us.”
Stretching to 6-foot-6-inches, Dwight’s height was one of the first things people noticed about him.
If anyone ever said they worked for the sheriff’s office, Elizabeth would ask if they know Dwight and hold her hand up way above her head. “That’s my dad,” she would say with a smile.
Dwight was originally hired as a part-time transport officer, but soon became integral to growing the division. Eventually filling out to include three full-time officers, Dwight was a mentor to everyone on staff, Aleasha said.
“I was nervous about where to go with the jails and the prisons. He just made it really easy to get in and do the job and learn it,” Alesha said, fighting back tears. “I don’t think I would be here in this position with Dallas County if it wasn’t for Dwight.”
In addition to being a great teacher and police officer, Dwight was just a positive guy, always willing to lend a hand, said Tom Peterson, Dallas County’s jail administrator.
“That man could go to any jail in the state and they knew who he was,” Tom said. “Polk County — as big as Polk County is — if I go over there for a transport, they’d say, ‘Where’s the big guy? Where’s Dwight?’ Or Story County. Or any of them.
"They all knew him. Because he’d be there and if they had an issue, he’d be helping them. That’s just who he was.”
Aleasha spent hours riding in the transport van with Dwight, talking about everything from politics to shooting — though what’s said in the van, stays in the van.
“He always said, ‘Van talk, let’s do van talk,’” Aleasha said with a laugh. “When you work in this job, you get close to people and it’s almost like a second family and that’s kind of what I considered Dwight.
“It’s been really difficult without him because he’s played such a big role for us.”
Dwight left big shoes to fill — literally, Aleasha said. And even two months on from losing her friend and teacher, she still finds herself asking: What would Dwight do?
“I just hope that I can do my job the way he would have wanted me to," she said.