Capt. Johnny Poulos grew up watching his uncle, former DPS Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz, wearing the uniform of the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
Poulos was 9 years old in 1974 when Santa Cruz graduated from Trooper school.
In 1999, Poulos joined MHP as a part of Class 54, and started his career in Hattiesburg. As he continued that career, his son Justin was watching in the same way.
"I was raised around it my whole life and it's always been a calling for me," said Justin Poulos. "Growing up around it and seeing how everything operates and how my father impacted the community around him — that's something I always wanted."
On Tuesday, Justin Poulos graduated Trooper school as part of Class 62 along with 56 other cadets. It seemed to bring full-circle the photo he and his father had taken at Johnny Poulos' graduation when Justin was 7 years old, as did the photo of Justin and his son Ridge, 3, who was even wearing an MHP uniform made of one of Johnny Poulos' old uniforms.
"The brass that's on that shirt is what I actually graduated with in 1999. To see those pictures side by side, it's hard to explain," Johnny said. "It's a proud moment, but it's an emotional moment to think I remember when Justin was standing by me in that picture when I graduated and it seems like it's just yesterday. Nineteen years later, he walks across that stage and gets the badge."
Because it becomes a way of life in a family, there have been other families with generations of troopers, Johnny Poulos said. It's an honor to be among them. And could Ridge be the next member of the family to join the MHP one day?
"I'm following in my father's footsteps. I hope to be a father to my son like my dad's been to me, it's amazing to be able to grow up and see that," Justin said. "I'm just hoping my son will be able to experience the same things that I am."
"There's a possibility if he chooses, he might walk across that stage one day and get the badge pinned on him too," Johnny said. "If that's what's in store for Ridge down the road, hopefully I'll be around to see that."
Justin Poulos attributes his graduation from the academy not only to his family, but to his classmates. When they missed being home, he said, they took comfort in the family they were becoming to each other.
"The hardest part about patrol school for me was being away from my family, and I think for all 57 cadets the hardest part was being away from family," Justin said. "It's a culture shock, but when it's all said and done, we all pretty much came together as a family and we all got to graduate and walk across the stage. We all accomplished something together, and it's all something we'll remember the rest of our lives."
There were three women in the class, and cadets from all over the state. Capt. Poulos said the class seemed to have a character and chemistry from the beginning.
"They were a unique class, you could tell they wanted to be there. They had the drive and they knew they were going to graduate," Johnny Poulos said. "As far as the females being mothers, then going out on top of that and being a trooper, I can't tell you how much respect I have for them to be able to do that and to want to do that, so they deserve the credit."
Johnny Poulos said Class 62 taught their superiors as well, especially in ways they can more effectively recruit. Having three women in the class helped them learn more about how to recruit women as well, he said.
The recruits received their assignments a few weeks ago and will now start several weeks with field training officers. Justin Poulos said he, like most of his classmates, is looking forward to being on the road.
Johnny Poulos said it was a strange experience to be both a trooper and a trooper's father, helping encourage Justin when he came home on the weekends and get him ready to face another week.
"I'm really proud of him, and the whole family is too. He accomplished it just like he said he would," Johnny Poulos said.
Something else Justin said to him stuck with him, too.
"He said, 'This isn't about me, there are 56 other cadets who deserve just as much credit as I do if not more,'" Johnny Poulos said.