Strength and heart: Departing sheriff still commands respect

I had lunch with Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry the other day.

Well, that’s what it felt like, anyway.

I went to a local barbecue joint with retiring Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength – though, except for our lunch conversation, he seemed to be with everyone else. From the car to the foyer to the table and back again, it was hugs, handshakes and hellos – from acquaintances and strangers, young and old, black and white.

They know Ronnie Strength in this town, and they love him.

The reason is clear enough: He’s a good man and a fair man who has done a very difficult, very delicate job with the utmost integrity, humility and grit. And after his 36 years in a department where his father once served, and as sheriff for the past dozen years, people in this town know it.

Although actor Andy Griffith’s lovable TV sheriff never saw the level of crime and violence a Richmond County sheriff must ride herd on every day, Ronnie Strength has the heart of Andy Taylor – and has somehow managed to make it to retirement with that heart intact.

It was tested every time, as a lawman, he had to break the news of a loved one’s death, especially that of a child or elder. It was tested when he was confronted with a child abuser.

But his heart was on full display when he determined to always treat everyone, even suspects, with dignity and respect. Even as a uniformed officer, for instance, he rarely wrote a ticket – instead expressing concern for the driver’s safety.

One testament to Strength’s respectful treatment of others: Just weeks before his retirement, an armed robber that Strength helped imprison years ago stopped by to shake his hand and congratulate him. I bear no grudge, he told the sheriff. It was cat and mouse; I was the mouse, you were the cat.

The man, having served his time, is now gainfully employed and raising a family.

And another: A woman recently sent him a $15 retirement gift. Strength quickly suspected it was more than she could afford. He tried to return it, but she was insistent and he didn’t want to insult her.

He has no current plans to spend it, though he’s got plenty of opportunity: He’s setting up shop on a farm he bought this year that he calls White Oaks.

He may be trying to get away from it all – as away as a hometown homebody ever gets – after a career in which his only regret is how much he worked. But even down on the farm, he can’t escape the love: A neighbor made him a “White Oaks” sign.

If there was one knock on Ronnie Strength, it was for being tight with a dollar – or “prudent,” as he prefers to put it. Some knock! There is no telling how much money he saved Richmond County taxpayers by strictly funding needs and not just wants.

Nor is there any telling how many anonymous diners have paid his tab in local restaurants. Whatever you think of society, and whatever ills the sheriff’s department is left to clean up, there is still a ton of good people who appreciate men such as Strength putting their lives on the line to protect us every day.

Strength could fill several books, too, with all the good deeds his officers do that never show up in newspapers or in the box
scores.

Still, it’s a sad commentary that the good-hearted Andy Taylor/Ronnie Strength approach probably doesn’t wash anymore: Folks who are let off with a warning these days are less likely to repay the officer with good behavior than with another offense further down the road. Can an officer take that chance anymore?

I feel privileged to have been in on the last decade of this man’s career. He was always ready and willing to give me the straight scoop, no matter whether it was good or bad. He was as good for a journalist as he was for the town.

Ronnie Strength no doubt learned a lot from his sheriff’s deputy dad, but the most important thing may have been to know when to call it quits. His dad never did – and died on duty.

I’m so glad his son knows better, and so is a grateful public.

Here’s to a long, happy retirement.

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