Ronnie Strength followed in his father’s footsteps.
But only so far.
Strength remembers his father, who also worked for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office for some 30 years, holding down two and three jobs in order to raise his family. He remembers pleading with him to retire.
“Every year, he told me, ‘Ronnie, I’m going to retire next year. You know, me and mother got a little place up in Clarks Hill.’ And I was so excited about that.
“He had a stroke and died down here, working. I don’t forget that.”
While he still can, Sheriff Ronnie Strength is taking his feet where his father never took his: He’s walking away from the sheriff’s department he will have called home for 36 years at the end of this year.
And he might as well have called it “home.” If you do it right, the job of sheriff is a 24/7 affair. Strength’s dedication was such that he never even took vacations, donating his five weeks back to the residents he served every year.
He didn’t mind a bit, even calling his 35 years a “vacation” because he’s loved the work so much: “When I wake up every single morning – and this sounds corny – I have been excited to come to work. This has been my vacation.”
But in retrospect, he says, he’s been dedicated to a fault, taking a lifelong work ethic – starting at a neighbor’s grocery at age 13 – and stretching it into his only regret.
“That’s the way we were raised,” he said Friday, announcing he won’t seek re-election. “You worked hard and you earned. I know no different.
“I was wrong by doing it. For 35 years, I put this job ahead of my family. And for that, I was wrong.”
If he regrets that, he’s the only law-abiding citizen in Richmond County who does. When word of his impending retirement hit the streets even before his announcement, he was bombarded with calls and e-mails that at first pleaded with him to reconsider – then expressed unconditional support for his decision.
“It is so simple,” the 66-year-old Strength told them, as he told us. “I’m tired. Being sheriff will take a lot out of you. It’s days, it’s nights, it’s weekends, it’s holidays. There’s always something going on. I just can’t do it like I used to do it.”
It’s how he’s done it that makes Ronnie Strength a living legend in this town: With almost every other public institution here having experienced turmoil, dysfunction and public angst over the years, Strength’s sheriff’s office has been beyond rock solid. Trusted and relied upon as a law enforcement agency was meant to be, his department has been the steadiest influence in Augusta public service – despite dealing with all the surprises, dangers and indignities such an agency deals with.
He’s also made the occasional splash, though – with several major sting operations in the last few years, such as the recent “Operation Smoke Screen,” that have swept hundreds of crooks off the streets and earned national recognition and peer respect.
He’s done it over three-and-a-half decades of constant change, too – with officers moving from 3x5 index cards to all of today’s gadgets, and criminals becoming exponentially more violent over the years.
How has he done it? One word: integrity. Being firm and fair, and treating everyone the same – with care and respect – is something former Sheriff Charlie Webster handed him along with the office keys.
“I’ve lived by that,” Strength says. “If you treat everybody the same, whether they’re an employee or a citizen, you’ll never have a problem. And it has paid dividends.
“Anybody comes down here and wants to see me, they are going to see me. I don’t care who they are. I don’t care if they had an appointment. They are going to see me. And I return 100 percent (of) telephone calls. My secretary says ‘You have lost your mind.’”
Never has Strength’s integrity shone as bright as those few sad occasions when an officer himself breaks the law. The sheriff never hesitated to treat them like everybody else, too. “I’ve never covered up for anybody. My people know that. I will not do it.”
His biggest challenge? Doing with less: He’s got 32 fewer uniformed officers on the streets today than when he was first elected in 2000.
His biggest heartaches? Losing four deputies over the years, three to traffic fatalities and one, J.D. Paugh, to a roadside sniper just last October. “You never forget,” Strength says.
He should know about being unforgettable. Ronnie Strength leaves huge shoes to fill.
And a cautionary tale about when it’s time for them to walk.