Walking the beat in Old Town Alexandria in 1963, officer Ron Graves was a familiar figure in his eight-point police hat. He had no portable radio then to call for backup assistance, but the merchants and taxi drivers along King Street were more than happy to help him out in a pinch.

When trouble broke out at some of the more raucous beer joints, Graves would restore the peace and make any necessary arrests. Then he'd head for the nearest call box, grab the rotary phone and ask the dispatcher to send over one of the police department's 13 marked cruisers. "You'd walk the suspect to the call box," Graves said. "If he was drunk, you'd carry him or drag him--whatever the case might be. You'd always have some people who would resist. You'd just have to show 'em who the boss was."

The Alexandria police department, of course, is a much different place today. Officers only wear their eight-point police hats during parades or other formal occasions. Portable radios--and computers--are standard issue, and officers no longer have to buy their own handcuffs and whistles. Recruits are required to attend a police academy. There are female officers on the force. The police department's fleet has grown to 160 marked cruisers--all with air conditioning.

But one thing hasn't changed in the 37 years since Graves joined the force and six police chiefs have come and gone: He's still there.

"Ron Graves was an icon when I came on the department 20 years ago," said Capt. Al Tierney, commander of the police department's investigations bureau. "As a young recruit, I was always kind of in awe of him. As I grew up through the department, he was always there."

"Ron Graves is like a living legend," Lt. John Crawford said. "To complete 37 years as a law enforcement officer is incredible. To continue to be enthusiastic about your career after all those years is remarkable."

At an age when most officers have retired or are well into their second careers, Graves, who turns 58 in April, is still making the 40-mile commute to work from his farm in Prince William County, where he lives with his wife, Patt, 56, and daughter, Hope Lynne, 36.

During a heavy snowstorm one winter, his wife recalled, Graves was so determined to get to work that he decided to walk to Alexandria police headquarters--from their home at the time in Fairfax.

"He loves it," Patt Graves said. "He's always loved it. He's the only person I've ever known who gets up every morning and really wants to go to work."

To realize just how unusual a 37-year police career is, consider this: Nearly half of the 286 sworn officers working alongside him today weren't even born when Graves joined the force in June 1963.

Graves, who is now a police sergeant, said he might not be the most senior member of the police department today if he were still working on the street, an often stressful and demanding job, or if his family had not been so supportive all these years.

"If I had been working patrol, I perhaps would have a different outlook," Graves said.

But he is hardly sitting behind his desk, cooling his heels. Graves, in fact, wears three police hats, helping supervise and coordinate the special operations unit, special events and the department's auxiliary officers.

He mostly works behind the scenes, orchestrating some of the city's biggest events, including the St. Patrick's Day Parade, the Waterfront Festival and First Night Alexandria. If the president decides at the last minute to drop by, Graves ensures the visit is seamless, his fellow officers say.

Growing up in Old Town, playing outside around City Hall, Graves dreamed of becoming a police officer or a fireman one day. He did both, volunteering at his fire station during high school.

When he turned 21, he signed up to be a police officer and was sent to Richmond for one week of training. He was issued a .38 revolver--an old one--and a wooden nightstick, but no holder to carry it in. He also had to buy his own handcuffs and whistle. And no matter how serious the call, only one officer was sent to the scene.

"That was the mentality," said Graves, who emerged unscathed after a shootout during a domestic call. "They gave you a call and you handled it. Pity you if they called out your sergeant. He'd say, 'Can't you handle it?' "

In the early '70s, as gun violence was increasingly making national headlines, Graves helped start the department's first Special Operations Team (SOT). Because of the image portrayed on television shows, he did not want to call it a SWAT team.

Through the '80s and into the '90s, Graves worked in criminal investigations and supervised investigations of crimes against persons. When there was a homicide, he said, officers sometimes worked around the clock for days at a time before the trail got cold.

"When he worked homicides, we would go days without ever hearing from him," said Patt Graves, who met her husband in high school in 1960. "We just learned to be independent."

While they tease him about his senior status, his fellow officers look up to the 6-foot-1 Graves and appreciate the fact that he doesn't play favorites, not even to people who outrank him.

"I was his boss's boss and he put me out in an intersection directing traffic," said Tierney, the police captain. "It was cold. I didn't grouse about it."

Like any officer, Graves has gone through difficult times, perhaps none worse than when one of his officers, Cpl. Charles W. Hill, was gunned down during a hostage situation in 1989 and Hill's partner, Cpl. Andy Chelchowski, who was injured in the incident, later killed himself.

"That took a lot out of him," said Capt. Ted S. McInteer, western district commander in Prince William and a close friend.

Graves is still not ready to retire, but he will have to when he reaches age 60 in another two years. Rather than being forced out of a job he loves, he may turn in his gun before they take it from him, he said.

"He'll be sorely missed," Tierney said. "I really can't conceive of the police department without Ron Graves."

CAPTION: Sgt. Ron Graves has been on the Alexandria police force longer than these 1970s-era police motorcycles. "He loves it," says his wife, Patt.

CAPTION: Nearly half of the city's 286 sworn officers weren't born when Graves joined the force in June 1963.

CAPTION: Graves, far right, and officers helped with security at Alexandria home of President Gerald Ford, left, in 1974.