We used to call Leroy Sims "The Grim Reaper." He was a big, tall man, with perpetual bags under his eyes and a serious demeanor; when he arrived at the scene of a suspicious death, his presence alone signaled an official and unfortunate end to someone's life.
Leroy was Richmond County's coroner, and met the reaper himself after Thanksgiving. His health declining in recent years, Leroy had confronted death often enough that it probably seemed like an old friend when it came.
I was fortunate to consider Leroy an old friend of mine, a man who always shot straight and treated everyone with kindness and respect.
Leroy and I first met back when he was still an Augusta city detective and worked with Marvin Woodward as assistant coroner. I was just a young cop reporter at the time, hanging around wrecks and crime scenes. We used to do more of that in years gone by, back before police agencies had official spokesmen. Leroy was always courteous, helpful and friendly - and, above all, patient.
He also had a good sense of humor, and got me in trouble once as a result.
It happened when a Windsor, S.C. pedestrian was hit by a truck on U.S. 25 in Richmond County. The man was killed instantly, his body thrown quite a distance.
The surprise came when emergency medical technicians flipped the body over. They found a live copperhead underneath; it had bitten the man several times. The man was DOA, and deputies killed the snake.
Even Leroy was amazed. "For a man to get hit by a tractor-trailer, knocked that far and land on a poisonous snake, the odds against it, you couldn't get anybody in Vegas to bet on it," Sims said. I quoted him in the July 12, 1985 Augusta Chronicle.
The ink on the paper was barely dry when I received a tearful call from the man's sister, reminding me that the dead man had a family. While the story may have seemed like a real corker to us, it was serious to them.
That episode taught me two things: Every death hurts someone living, and most of those people have phones; and, dark humor may be OK to share among those confronting death on a daily basis, but it shouldn't necessarily wind up in the paper.
Those two things boil down to one: Sensitivity. Leroy Sims, a man who had the awful job of confirming the deaths of people and then of breaking the news to family members, was good at his job because he was an incredibly sensitive human being even under the worst circumstances.
Those circumstances included being pestered by reporters who sometimes lack that sensitivity, and he was good with us, too. Rest in peace, Leroy.
Zell's in town
Leroy Sims' death deprives the world of a rare conservative Democrat, literally confirming the thesis that such men are a dying breed.
Zell Miller forcefully states that thesis in his book, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat. He argues the obvious: Southern Democrats and the national party have as little in common as Zell Miller and Ted Kennedy.
Zell will sign copies of the controversial book today (Dec. 3, 2003) at Barnes & Noble, 5-6:30 p.m.
Something to show off to visitors is Augusta's new Petersburg boat replica. The electric-power boat tours the Augusta Canal.
Our tour the day after Thanksgiving was cold and blustery, making us thankful that a too-tight opening at the Lake Olmstead gate for now limits the trips to one hour. Once the 15-foot-wide gate is equipped with bumpers to let the 12-foot-wide boat safely pass, the tours will last three hours and turn around at Savannah Rapids Pavilion.
Columbia County's history is on tour with each trip; the community of Petersburg, where this type of boat gets its name, is now underwater at Clarks Hill Lake.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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