The morning after Ronnie Strength defeated Lt. Leon Garvin in the sheriff's election with 73 percent of the vote, he was back at the office at 7 a.m.
Seven months on leave from the job he loves had been tough - although he admits he was never really farther away than the telephone.
"Sure, they called me," said Chief Deputy Strength, who will become sheriff in January. "But I wasn't down here every day running things like they said I was."
Lt. Garvin's camp had tried to make his presence an issue during the campaign because both were forced to take leaves of absence in April after qualifying.
Amid Wednesday morning's congratulatory calls and greetings, Chief Deputy Strength met with Sheriff Charlie Webster and Lt. Garvin. All agreed the race was over. Bygones were bygones. However, Sheriff Webster said he did remind Lt. Garvin he had advised him early on not to run - that he would not be able to raise money.
Sheriff Webster has been grooming his chief deputy for sheriff almost from the day the sheriff was first sworn in in 1984.
"I was looking at the group that was lined up on the stage," Sheriff Webster recalled. "A bunch of them didn't know what to expect of me. It'd been so much problems going on.
"J.B. Dykes didn't know where he was half the time. He was just a blowhard. And believe it or not, Bill Anderson, when he became sheriff, he was a good sheriff. ... If he had kept his nose clean, he would have been sheriff today. And he ended up serving time. And then J.B. Dykes ended up serving time."
Sheriff Dykes was accused of taking bribes in exchange for fixing DUI tickets. In 1983, he pleaded guilty to two federal charges of obstructing justice. In 1980, former Sheriff Anderson began a five-year sentence for selling marijuana.
From the beginning, Sheriff Webster said, he knew he had to have professional law enforcement officers around him to survive.
"Well, when I got to dealing with each and every one of them, I (saw) he had everything in the world it took to be a good police officer," he said. "He was a good police officer, very knowledgable. Knew how to handle a case, knew how to present a case in court. All the materials were there.
"I was a good revenue agent. I was good. I mean, there wasn't no doubt about it. I didn't need nobody to tell me what to do as far as moonshine was concerned. Yes sir. I felt like I was at home. That was my baby.
"Then when I got in this law enforcement, well I'd never given nobody a ticket. I never wrote a parking ticket or speeding ticket in my lifetime. And so I got to watching him real close, and I could see he was very professional."
Chief Deputy Strength's two strong points are backbone and honesty, Sheriff Webster said.
"He could make a decision, and the decision he made he could stand with it," he said. "And the next thing I saw was his honesty. And that's what it takes. I don't want to see this department embarrassed again, and it won't be."
So they became a team.
"I knew the political end a heck of a lot more than he did, and he knew the law enforcement so much better than I'd ever dare to know," Sheriff Webster said.
But to get elected, Chief Deputy Strength had to learn the political end too, Sheriff Webster said.
"I said, `You've got to become a politician along with being a professional officer,"' he said. "And when we first started off, I said, `Now when we go into places, I want you to go to shaking hands with everybody in there, making yourself known.'
"When we first started, he'd stand over in a corner and have his hands in his pockets. I'd say, `Son, you're going to have to take your hands out of your pockets. We're not getting the job done this away.'
"Gradually it took effect. And I've seen him, when I'd walk in - maybe he'd get there a little bit ahead of me. And I'd tell him a lot of times I'd say, `You get there 20 minutes ahead of me.' I'd walk in and I'd say, `You got em?'
"I'd say, `Get some of them the second time. It don't hurt."'
At first, Chief Deputy Strength wasn't really comfortable but gradually relaxed and began to enjoy politicking, Sheriff Webster said.
"I used to watch him," he said. "One day I said, `Son, I don't watch you anymore. You've graduated.' He got to where he was real good."
On the other hand, during Chief Deputy Strength's absence this year, Sheriff Webster learned what a load his chief deputy took off him.
"I really had to bear down and know more about law since he left than I had to get on top of things because I saw things weren't running right," he said.
Maj. Ken Autry said Chief Deputy Strength lives for the sheriff's department.
"I've worked with him for 22 years," Maj. Autry said. "He comes to work every day at 7:30 and works until 5, unless he can find an excuse to stay longer. Then he goes home and sits by the phone waiting for the sheriff's department to call."
Chief Deputy Strength said it was true.
"Don't mind doing it," he added.
Chief Deputy Strength is also notified of all major crimes, day or night, and goes to many of the crime scenes.
"No matter what time you call, he answers the phone on the first ring," Maj. Autry said. " If I call at 5 o'clock in the morning, he'll answer on the first ring. I say, `Are you asleep?' He says, `Yes."'
Chief Deputy Strength admits being a workaholic and enjoying it. He acknowledges the downside is being away from home so much.
"You miss a lot of things," he said. "And is it fair to your family? Sometimes it's not."
"Honest, hard-working and straightforward" are the words most used to describe the sheriff-elect. Add the word "dapper."
Maj. Autry said that when Chief Deputy Strength had open-heart surgery in 1992, he would not let the nurses into his room until he had combed his hair.
"Doggone right. Doggone right," Chief Deputy Strength said, then apparently had second thoughts about his admission.
"One thing about it, if that shows up in the newspaper, you won't see him (Maj. Autry) anymore," he said.
Maj. Autry and the other detectives there just laughed.
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.
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