Columbia County Coroner Vernon Collins says his life revolves around one little thing: his pager.
"I sleep with it," Collins said Friday from his office in the Thomas L. King Sr. Morgue. "It is right by my bed with my cell phone."
Collins spent 16 years as deputy coroner under his longtime friend and mentor, Thomas L. "Tommy" King. King, who operated Thomas L. King Funeral Home in Martinez and served as the coroner for 34 years, died Nov. 1, 2006. Collins was appointed to the post.
"I miss him now," said Collins, who still gets emotional talking about King, whose awards hang on the wall in Collins' office in the building bearing King's name.
Collins was told at his November 2006 appointment that he had big shoes to fill. He said he wasn't intimidated, but honored, to succeed King.
"The way I look at it is Tommy was working on a pair of shoes for me for 16 years," said Collins, who also is the safety director for Augusta Delivery Service and Southway Cranes in Lexington, S.C.
Collins and his two deputy coroners are responsible for investigating the deaths of all those who die at home, in accidents, in wrecks or under questionable circumstances, in addition to those who die within 24 hours of being admitted to a hospital and all deaths of anyone age 18 and under, Collins said.
"I think Vernon is doing a great job," said Deputy Coroner Bonnie King, Tommy King's widow. "He's very dedicated to that job and has been since he's been in it. He holds a lot of integrity. Tommy would be so proud."
Collins has worked to modernize the office. He secured two laptop computers for work at scenes and created an expanded four-page death investigation form to replace one that was handwritten on carbon paper. The new form is much more detailed and can be submitted electronically to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
For the first time in his 17 years as a county coroner, Collins will be on the November ballot.
"I'm going to run and see what the future holds," Collins said. "Hopefully, I've touched a lot of hearts, and a lot of people remember me."
As a young man, Collins said he never imagined he would be a coroner. He earned an electronics degree from Augusta Technical College and ended up in the trucking industry, where he was a supervisor at age 21.
A single event led him to the medical field. Collins said he responded to a wreck on Wheeler Road where a young boy on a bicycle had been hit and killed by a car. He rushed to help, but with no medical experience and the severity of the boy's injuries, nothing could be done.
"The child actually died in my arms," Collins said.
He became an emergency medical technician and ended up working for two years as a burn technician in the Doctors Hospital burn unit.
"I got a crash course in emergency medicine," he said. "It was like do-or-die situations. I learned a lot."
Collins said he was working as a recovery room technician when he met Dr. Butch Garrison and King, who then ran the county's ambulance service from his funeral home.
In 1990, King asked Collins to become his deputy. Collins has been working in trucking and acting as coroner ever since.
In 2005, Collins handled 160 of the 190 coroner's office cases, and he learned that an entire night of sleep is a treat.
"It is not an 8-to-5 job," said Collins, who earns $16,000 a year as the coroner. "It is an 8-to-8 job, 24 hours a day."
For Collins, the job is not a morbid or dark one. His focus is on the surviving family members of lost loved ones.
"He's just got a very kind way with the families," Bonnie King said. "And they come first. If they have a need, Vernon is right there."
Being able to comfort the survivors is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, Collins said.
"I guess the driving force behind me is the thank-you cards that I've received over the years," Collins said, pulling out a stack of cards and letters from a desk drawer.
When his wife, Ruth, asked why people send cards to the coroner, Collins said he simply treats each family as he would hope his own family would be treated if he died.
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