Did you realize that during his next term in office, Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle will celebrate 20 years as our county’s top cop?
Since his special election to the post back in 1995, Whittle has outlasted pretty much every other head law enforcement officer in our area. In a county as safe as ours, we tend to forget that peace and tranquility are no accident.
But we’re suddenly reminded when things happen as they did in a 24-hour span last week.
On Friday, Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength announced his retirement after 11 years in office. And on Saturday, Columbia County schools Public Safety Chief Buddy Hendry lost his battle with lung cancer.
Newcomers to our community certainly could be forgiven for not knowing the tremendous impact Strength’s tenure, and that of his predecessor and mentor, Charlie Webster, had on Augusta. The newly arrived wouldn’t know that pre-consolidation Richmond County had sent two sheriffs to prison, and that county officials responded to the ensuing turmoil by setting up a county police department under their control.
It was a short-lived experiment, returning to normalcy when Webster took over and the police department was eliminated. Later, under consolidation when the often scandal-plagued Augusta Police Department was merged with the sheriff’s office, Webster assumed full authority.
Since then, the helm has steadied so much that the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office no longer is an issue of concern. Instead, it’s a model of organization that the rest of the county would do well to emulate. For the past 11 years, and with repeated budgetary challenges, that’s been the contribution of Ronnie Strength - as good a man to ever wear a badge as has ever lived.
Likewise, the steady hand of a quiet and unassuming man has been at the helm of the Columbia County Schools Public Safety Department since Buddy Hendry took the job in 2000. As Donnie Fetter’s story today on Hendry points out, Hendry came into the top job just after the horrors of Columbine and the heightened fears for school security.
Since then, there never has been a moment when we didn’t rightly assume that our schools were, as a whole, safe places for our children. Sure, there have been occasional scares; no one can stop that. But Hendry was always behind the scenes with his officers to keep a keen eye out for trouble.
The schools aren’t safe just by happenstance, yet the safer they are, the easier it is to take that security for granted. We shouldn’t.
Likewise, we shouldn’t take for granted the quiet, peaceful, law-abiding community we live in. With the departure of two fellow law enforcement professionals, there’s no better time to thank Sheriff Clay Whittle and every one of his deputies for their service.
We’ll certainly miss them when they’re gone, too.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimes online.com. Follow at twitter.com/