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2 high-ranking lawmen earn college degrees

David Zack and Mark Wipperman are two of the area's top lawmen, and after this weekend they'll share another title: college graduate.

Zack, Cheektowaga's chief of police, and Wipperman, Erie County's undersheriff, are both graduating from Hilbert College in Hamburg with bachelor's degrees in -- what else? -- criminal justice.

For Wipperman, the accomplishment is a nod to his father, Richard, a retired Cheektowaga police officer.

"My dad has been really big on education," Wipperman said. "I think he was disappointed that I came so close and I stopped with just four classes left. I thought I owed it to him to go and finish."

Zack felt he owed it to himself.

"When you're at those higher ranks, you expect to see a person with a certain level of formal education and when you don't have it, you feel self-conscious," Zack said. "It always bothered me, and I just wanted to get it done. It was like unfinished business."

Zack, 49, started his education at the University at Buffalo in the fall of 1981, but fell behind after blowing out his knee on the wrestling team. He went to Erie Community College to get his grades up.

Zack eventually took a job as a corrections officer -- spending a year working at Sing Sing and two at Attica -- before finishing his associate degree at ECC so he could get into the Cheektowaga Police Department in 1987. He rose through the ranks and was appointed chief in 2011.

Wipperman, 42, went to Hilbert in the late 1980s, earning his associate degree. He went on to work for the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office, then the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority police before being hired by the Erie County Sheriff's Office in 1995.

He worked full time while studying part time at Buffalo State College but stopped four courses shy of his bachelor's.

Wipperman was named undersheriff in 2010 and that fall returned to Hilbert part time. It was a transition being back in the classroom.

"After about three weeks of the first semester, I was like 'Oh, man, why did I do this?' " Wipperman said. "But I'm not a quitter."

Zack, too, started chipping away at his four-year degree, taking a course each semester -- some online, others in the traditional classroom setting.

"That was a little awkward," Zack said. "It is odd when you're in your late 40s and going to class with kids younger than your children."

The two combined have nearly 50 years of law enforcement experience and were familiar with a lot of the material.

But Wipperman said he learned a lot, particularly about computer crime and some of the sociology behind crime. Instructors called on Zack in class to discuss his opinions and experience, but teachers weren't intimidated by having a longtime lawman in the room, the police chief said.

Neither Zack nor Wipperman -- who have known each other for years -- will attend today's commencement ceremony, but they'll probably get another chance.

Zack plans to pursue his master's, and Wipperman hasn't ruled it out someday down the road when the duties of the job aren't as demanding.

"I just want to know what Mark's GPA is," cracked Zack. "If it's anywhere near mine, I want a formal inquiry, because I know I'm smarter than him."

Hilbert's commencement is one of several being held today by local colleges, including Buffalo State, Fredonia State College, Niagara University and Niagara County Community College.