The national news called the rural lawman a hero, but Joe didn’t see it that way. While they wheeled him to the hospital, someone asked the sheriff how he felt.

Sunset in Alabama. The woods of Butler County are something else tonight. The crickets are out.

I’m chewing the fat with men who know a thing or two about these woods. They’re sipping beer, eating pulled pork, swatting gnats.

These men are peace officers. This party is being thrown in honor of Sheriff Joe Sanders. The sheriff has been dead a long time.

But he’s not dead tonight. At least, not when they retell his stories.

People form a semi-circle. Former deputies, family, in-laws, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. They tell tales they’ve been retelling for decades. Good stories about an even-tempered man who once watched over Butler County.

There’s the story about the sheriff handling an armadillo problem for a local farmer. Or the time he bought snuff for a woman he was carrying to jail.

They talk about how he used to sleepwalk in his skivvies; how he’d been married for fifty-three years; or how he always ate lunch at the Chicken Shack.

But those stories are only warm-ups. Everybody here knows the best story. It’s about when the sheriff was held hostage.

I’ll hit the highlights:

Thirty years ago. A Monday. A gunman walks into Butler County courthouse and takes a courtroom hostage. The sheriff uses his natural charm to negotiate.

“If you let these folks go,” says the sheriff, “you can hold ME hostage.”

It’s a gutsy move. The gunman lets the people free. The sheriff is his bargaining chip. Things are going fine until a struggle erupts and shots are fired by the gunman. Sheriff Joe takes a bullet.

Things go from bad to worse. The gunman holds the sheriff at gunpoint. The sheriff is losing blood. A six-hour standoff ensues.

We’re talking FBI, out-of-town cops, Alabama Bureau of Investigation, snipers, and national-news choppers.

Greenville is the epicenter of the world.

One former deputy remembers: “It was a hell of a day, I’ll tell you that much.”

The small-town sheriff bled on the courthouse floor. His legs were shattered.

But there he was, telling jokes in a friendly voice.

Another former deputy recalls: “He was treating the man like his best buddy, kept the guy talking about hunting, fishing, everything… Anything to keep him engaged.”

It worked. The traumatic event ended peacefully. Nobody died.

The national news called the rural lawman a hero, but Joe didn’t see it that way. While they wheeled him to the hospital, someone asked the sheriff how he felt.

He told them exactly how he felt: “Like Minnie Pearl—I’m just glad to be here.”

The world could use a few more sheriffs like Big Joe.

So there’s not enough room to tell you everything about him, but you know enough already. You know he was a dying breed.

He was a time without cellphones, radar guns, or supercomputers. Big-city policemen were working in high-tech crime labs. Sheriff Joe was buying groceries for the jailhouse.

He was the end of an era. He was a smaller world, with less electrical wires.

“He was a good man,” remarks one deputy.

“The best,” says Joe’s daughter.

“He was a GREAT man.”

“Sure was.”

“I loved him.”

“We all did.”

“Yeah.”

Things get quiet. You can feel something in the sticks of Butler County. Something heavy. Maybe it’s the spirit of the high sheriff himself.

“He made a man outta me,” says one. “I was just a skinny kid when he hired me as a deputy.”

The same man who said that is running for sheriff this year. When asked about it, he says: “I hope to be the good man Joe Sanders was.”

A good man.

I believe I’d like to be one, too.

13 comments

  1. Delynn Roberts - March 12, 2018 11:39 am

    I am so thankful that a friend of mine told me about you and your writings. Today is the second day I have been blessed to read your thoughts. Thank you for using the gifts that God is giving you to open the eyes and hearts so many people.

    Reply
  2. Sherry - March 12, 2018 12:28 pm

    Be one because Lord knows we need more now!

    Reply
  3. Sue Arnold - March 12, 2018 12:30 pm

    What a special tribute to Joe Sanders – growing up we respected every word he uttered or else. When I grew to be one of his adult children, I still respected him but he became more my mentor, friend, advisor and comic relief. He was genuine, honest, levelheaded and above all a Godly man of his word who occasionally took a holy nap on the back pew of First Baptist Church. I miss him every day. Thanks, Sean, for appreciating our reunion humor and memories and turning them to a tribute. It was an honor knowing Big Daddy and an honor meeting you, Sean. Wish you two could have shared some pulled pork together. 😃👮‍♂️🇺🇸

    Reply
  4. Jack Darnell - March 12, 2018 1:27 pm

    In our NC county it was Sheriff Beam. But I think I like Joe. Good Story, but I hate swatting gnats!

    Reply
  5. Carol Houston Rothwell - March 12, 2018 1:42 pm

    My son,is a deputy sheriff,here in Lee,Co.Ga..
    And I’d like to think ,he’s a good man too!
    In fact ,I’d like to think all of our Sheriff’s & deputies ,who put their lives on the line for us everyday,are good men…Let’s hope & Pray they are anyway! !
    Pray for them all!! AMEN!

    Reply
    • Delynn Roberts - March 12, 2018 4:51 pm

      Wow, we used to live in Lee County, Ga in the 90’s. It was a great place to raise children. Thanks to your son

      Reply
  6. Kay Peters - March 12, 2018 2:32 pm

    I saw an article about you in the Birmingham News and immediately found your posts. Now the first thing I do each morning is read your post. I have gone back in the archives but it will take me a long time to read them all but I intend to. Thanks for sharing your wonderful writing abilities with all of us.

    Reply
  7. Edna B - March 12, 2018 4:02 pm

    I’ve just found your blog and I’ve enjoyed this story very much. I’ll be back to read your other stories. thanks for sharing. Hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  8. S C Anderson - March 12, 2018 6:41 pm

    Great story about a good man. Generous, learned to keep his cool in in angry, hot tempered situations, and patient. Good lessons here.

    Reply
  9. Laura W. - March 12, 2018 8:26 pm

    My grandfather was a mechanic, not a Sheriff, but Big Joe sounds a lot like him. His name was Lil Kemp, he was a big talker and a Good Man. He had a way with words and a knack for expressions (“sweet as Saccharin” and “been lots of square meals at this round table”). Lil was always happy, never worried about a thing.

    Reply
  10. Eric - March 12, 2018 10:58 pm

    I don’t remember hearing about the shooting but I do remember the people talking about how good a man he was. I can remember him at my paw paws house just sitting out under the old oak tree shooting the breeze. I would get off the school bus n go right over there n just listen to them share stories. Him nor my paw paw minded if I was there. They would both talk to me about my day n all that. I tell ya the world would be a better place if we could go back to those days where people cared about each other n helped one another without expecting anything in return. Ole Mr. Joe was a great man.

    Reply
  11. Cathy Callender - March 13, 2018 1:04 am

    I love the world thru your eyes!

    Reply
  12. kelliec - March 15, 2018 8:50 pm

    My Daddy was a lawman… he too, is a good man. He saw a lot of bad stuff…had to inform parents that their hitchhiking boy had been hit and killed on the highway just days before Christmas…watched houses burn with folks still inside them…picked up the pieces of one young man along the railroad tracks. But one of the most honorable things he did as a police officer (that I know of anyway) was his kindness towards others and how he wanted folks to reach out to cops when they needed help, not fear them. He was finishing up a breakfast one day at a coffee shop when a mother pointed to him and told her young son, “Now you watch out and be good or that police man will get you.” Daddy calmly paid his bill and bought a lollipop. He walked right over to the little boy, spoke directly to him, and gave him the sucker. “No need to ever be afraid of me…I’m your friend,” he said. “And I’m ALWAYS here to help you.” He never addressed the mother.

    Reply

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