I was born in Jackson, TN, but grew up 20 miles from there in Bells, a town of about 1,100 people. Ours was a conventional house in a rural setting. We had a big garden, raised chickens, and ate three hot meals a day. Originally the house just had two bedrooms, but a few years after I was born — making three children — my parents added on.
We belonged to the Baptist church, and we lived right next door to our preacher and his wife. What role models they were! A true gentleman and lady from the old Southern school. They didn't have any children of their own, so my two sisters and I — for the large part — became the children they didn't have.
We all played outside with neighborhood kids — kids we went to school and church with — and we never locked our doors. Everyone watched out for everyone else. It was just a typical small-town life that was often found in the late 1950s.
From as early as I can remember, I've always had a very passionate interest in history. Even as a small child, I always thoroughly enjoyed being around my grandparents and hearing them tell stories about the old days when they were young.
I was not a model child! I think my parents were tired when I was born! My two sisters were academically strong — learned quickly, adapted easily, and were
perfect students. I wasn't as motivated in school. I was really quite average as far as my ambitions.
My parents were well educated, so they were constantly talking to us about the importance of education and academics. Much of it did not take with me until I got older. But one thing that did stick with me was a deep appreciation for the historical foundation of our country and of my family. And I carry that passion to this day.
We also lived next door to a funeral home. The owner was a good family friend. At an early age, I was allowed to come in and watch him do his work. I also helped him at various funeral services. In college, I actually worked at a funeral home.
So with a preacher on one side and a mortician on the other, I vacillated between growing up to be a minister or an undertaker.
I was also fascinated with the military and thought at one time I might be a career military officer. Throughout my family, there's a tradition of military service, and my family members would tell stories about their experiences. We were very proud of that service.
Dad's major was in agriculture, and he sold farm implements, seed, and various agricultural needs.
In 1962, there was a very vibrant Shelby County penal farm, which was a self-sustaining, minimum-security prison with a large agricultural farm. That year, Shelby County had just had an election, and the elected officials overseeing the penal farm wanted someone who had an agricultural background and was apolitical to run that 5,000-acre prison farm.
My father applied for the job and was selected, so we left Bells when I was 16 to live on the penal farm in 1963. The house we lived in is still there, just east of the prison. My father quickly became very passionate about the field of corrections.
It wasn't long after that the county started phasing out of the prison farm operation, so he was able to make that transition from the man running the farm to the man running the corrections facility.
I learned so much by watching him interact with the prisoners.
In college, I didn't really know what direction to take, but I did quite well in social sciences, so I went after what I loved and majored in history and political science. After college, the only job I was really qualified for was teaching school, so I taught for a year in Florida. But I was not happy teaching.
The Vietnam War was going on, so I decided to go ahead and fulfill my two-year obligation, get my G.I. bill, and go back to graduate school. I joined the Army.
Afterward, while I was in graduate school, I started really taking an interest in corrections. Besides, I needed a job! My wife, Pat, was pregnant with our first child, Lynnette. I got a part-time job working at the penal farm. While there, I became even more interested. I talked to my father about it. He encouraged me to enter the criminal justice field on the federal level, because it was more professional and less political. In 1977, I joined the United States Bureau of Prisons.
I fell in love with the profession. I served with that organization until my retirement in 1999. My jobs included training officer, supervisor of education, human resources and labor management manager, assistant warden, and then I served as a warden in federal prisons in various places throughout the country. In this profession, the saying goes: You can stay in one place your entire career and limit your upper mobility, or you can take your show on the road and advance your career. I opted to take my show on the road and see how well I could do.
In 2002, the Shelby County sheriff retired, and after I talked with some people and studied it, I decided to run for that office. To my surprise, I won! The job was even better than I thought it would be, and it was one of the most enjoyable jobs I've had.
Eight years later in 2010, the Shelby County mayor's office opened up. That was a tough decision because I was having such a good time being sheriff. But I was concerned about having the right person serve as mayor. I kept an eye on it and eventually made the decision to run. I felt confident that I could do the job. I knew it would be dynamically different and more of a political job, but it has definitely been a vastly rewarding job.
This is a good town with good people who have good ideas. It isn't perfect, but I have great confidence in our community, and I'm not alone.
Being a prison warden is a dangerous job … to some extent. You take snippets of The Green Mile and apply it; you can take snippets of The Shawshank Redemption and apply it. I enjoyed both of those movies, by the way. But I can say that although I encountered some dangerous situations, I never felt that my life was in danger.
One of the lessons I learned as a child … Sometimes I knew that my father was agreeing with my mother about something I did even though Mother was wrong. As a young adult, I asked him why. He said, "Yeah, I agreed with your mother when we were in front of you children. But behind closed doors, we worked out our differences about the situation." So I learned the importance of presenting a united front in front of the children.
The worst thing I saw as a prison warden … I witnessed a murder at a prison.
My father … is the most respected man in my life. He was very gentle but very strong and had unlimited patience. I don't think I've ever measured up to him, and I still think about him every day. He was the only one of eight children to go to college, thanks to a football scholarship. College is where he met my mother, and he was a great counterbalance to her.
My mother taught me … to appreciate the classical things in life. She was a home economics major, which came into play during her years of raising us, because running a family is very much an economic enterprise! We learned how to properly set a table, keep a kitchen clean — those kinds of things. She was very intelligent and loving.
Living on the prison grounds as a teenager … My friends wouldn't come visit me! They thought it was weird, but I was very comfortable.
Growing up, we didn't have … rock and roll music in the house. We always had classical music. I never felt deprived, but I did listen to my rock and roll at friends' houses.
When I introduced myself as a prison warden … it always made for an interesting conversation.
My two sisters … one was three years older, and one was six years older. And yes, they made me play dolls with them, but I didn't really think anything about it. And my first bicycle was a girl's bike!
Traveling so much during my corrections career meant … that we had to stay close as a family, which we did. We were fortunate that our kids were quite adaptable. Pat always made our home — no matter where that was — very comfortable for the children and me. Today, as adults, the children are still comfortable coming home, and we enjoy a close relationship as adults.
I wore a gun … while I was sheriff, but I fortunately never had to use it.
My least favorite food … Growing up, Mother made us eat everything on our plates, so today, there are very few things I don't care for.
The greatest lesson I learned from my parents … came about because of a tragedy in the family. When I was 20 years old, my eldest sister — the firstborn — died unexpectedly. I watched how my parents handled their loss with such dignity, such grace. I remember that we had just gotten home from the funeral, and a man came to the door and wanted to talk to my father. The man had no idea that we had just buried my sister, but he was terribly emotional and distraught about something. My father set his own grief aside and listened to and counseled this man for 30 minutes.
I ran for sheriff in 2002 because … Well, going back to my lifelong love of history and the government, I was always fascinated with politics. My children were grown, and quite frankly, I looked at the people who were offering themselves for office, and I wasn't really impressed. I decided to run.
My first paying job … I'd pick cotton in the fall — strawberries, potatoes, squash, okra. In a small town, there's always work to do. My first "inside job" was when I was six or seven years old working at my father's agriculture store. I went there on Saturdays — Mother wanted me out of the house — and I'd sweep and do odd jobs. I was 14 when I got my first "payroll job": delivering groceries. From the beginning, Mother taught me how to set some of my earnings aside in savings.
I understood the true meaning of marriage vows when … I watched my father take care of my mother, who died from Alzheimer's disease.
My experience in political campaigning taught me … There are basically three types of politicians: 1) People who are just drawn to competitions and the process of trying to win; 2) People who are involved for what they can get out of it; and 3) People who truly want to make a difference, serve the people, and improve their area of influence. I very quickly learned to determine in which category a person fit.
Being the sheriff was … a lot of fun! There's a fraternal attitude among law enforcement personnel, which can be bad or good, but if you catch it when it's good — and I did — there's just the greatest association with others who have chosen that line of work. It's a profession that requires a certain type of person, and it's a brotherhood.
I'm quickest to anger when … I see intolerance, when people don't take the time to see both sides of an issue and insist on making decisions or forming opinions without the facts.
As sheriff, I felt my life was in danger … shortly after I was elected. I made some decisions that included firing several hundred people, so I had threats made against my life, and it meant I had to have protection. It unnerved my family more than it did me. It just goes with the job.
The Andy Griffith Show … is one of the best comedies in the world! One thing that is accurate about that show and being a sheriff is the relationship building that is necessary. Community relations are a vital part.
The difference between campaigning for mayor and campaigning for sheriff … campaigning for mayor was much more political.
The difference between being sheriff and being mayor … The sheriff's job is more of a tactical job: mobilize your resources, fight crime, arrest the bad guys, and move on. In the mayor's job, it's more strategic. You deal with some of the same issues all the time — education, social conditions, public health — and it's a matter of managing time and budgeting money.
The part of being mayor that requires the most stamina … having patience. If you're going to be involved with politics, you've got to be a patient person, even when you don't feel patient.
In politics, it's important to realize … that your political opponents today may be your allies tomorrow. Also, that you can't take things personally. You learn to distinguish between things that are mean and people who are mean-spirited. Is it easy? No.
The public's biggest misperception about the office of mayor … "Compromise" is not a dirty word. Compromise can be the means to keep moving forward.
As I get older, I realize … that I appreciate my family more.
Right now I … am where I want to be. I've been very fortunate and very blessed in my career. I've enjoyed more success than disappointment. I've done things that are remarkable. I mean, I've been a prison warden, a sheriff, and a mayor. How do you improve on that?
My final 2 cents … The greatest pathway to success is maintaining a positive attitude and patiently moving forward with your progressive ideas. Balancing your life priorities between family and work allows you to greet each day with a renewed resolve to achieve your goals.