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Service with a smile
Nichols leaves behind 39 years of law enforcement experience

COVINGTON - Wise King Solomon observed, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven," (Ecclesiastes 3:1). After nearly 40 years in law enforcement, Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols gives that simple two-word reason for his retirement:

"It's time."

"I've had such good fortune and a good life, I want to retire while I still feel good," he said recently. "I've always believed I've been blessed to find this place as a home and to have the best family a man can have. I just felt like it was time to retire, and I've not had any doubts since I made that decision."

Nichols has served three terms as sheriff, but was appointed chief deputy by Sheriff Gerald Malcom shortly after he took office. Malcom served as sheriff for 20 years, from 1976 to 1996.

Fearful of leaving someone out, he said he wouldn't begin naming those folks who have meant so much to him during his career, but he made an exception of "the two sheriffs I worked for (Malcom and Henry 'Junior' Odum). They were completely different men, but both of them were good men," he said.

Nichols was raised as the proverbial Army brat. He intended to make the military his career, as his father had done, but an injury prevented that. He came to law enforcement because, "I didn't know what else you could do where you wore a uniform."

His wife, Lois, is a Georgia native, and in the early '70s, Nichols' plans were to put on the uniform of a Georgia State Patrol trooper. When he applied for a spot in trooper school, the required training wasn't scheduled to begin for five months. With a wife and baby, Nichols needed to go to work right away.

"The personnel director for the State Patrol at that time lived in Covington. He took me to the (Covington) chief of police and mayor and asked them to give me a job. About two months after I was here, all the race riots broke out, and Newton County had some serious problems. They pulled me off the radio and put me on the road, and at the end of five months, I didn't feel like I could leave because of the situation."

By the next time trooper school came around, Nichols said he discovered he still didn't want to leave his newfound home, and the decision was made to stay with the Covington Police Department.

"I grew up in Europe and never had a home, and after we'd been here a while, we decided this is where we wanted to make our home," he said. "I've never regretted it. There are some of the nicest people here, and I can't think of a better place to spend my life."

During his tenure with the CPD, Nichols said he would invariably run into then-Sheriff Junior Odum, who never called him by his name, but always referred to him as "boy."

"He'd ask me, 'Don't you want to wear brown, boy?' One day, I just decided I wanted to be a deputy," he said.

Odum, who served the NCSO for 10 years, only lived a few months after Nichols came on board, and it was only eight months later that Malcom took the helm.

Nichols said the tradition behind the office of sheriff has always intrigued him.

"I think the sheriff's office is the greatest law enforcement agency around. A sheriff answers directly to the people. I have 100,000 bosses. If you don't do a good job, if you embarrass the people of the county, if you don't take the badge seriously, if you don't serve the people well, you're replaced," he said. "The sheriff's office is unique because you don't have a boss, a council or a commission to direct its movements."

When asked for juicy details on the stories that make up the Joe Nichols legend, he was characteristically reticent.

"I can't tell the sad events, and I won't tell the funny events," he said.

Nichols believes the future of the NCSO is bright, and referred to the recent hit movie, "No Country for Old Men," starring Tommy Lee Jones. He said his son gave him the movie and pointed out the scene where Jones, who portrays a sheriff about to retire, stated how he felt about the new wave of crime headed his way. The character said, "I'm overmatched."

"He told me, 'That's the way you feel,' and I guess he's right. I realize I'm part of the past. We need somebody younger who knows about technology and who has strengths I don't have," Nichols said. "I know the sheriff-elect will do a good job and we've got some good young folks working for us. It's their turn now, and they're going to do great. I'm very optimistic at the way things are going."

Nichols said he doesn't have any plans for his retirement, but he is an avid reader, gardener, husband, father of two boys and grandfather of four, so it's pretty certain there will be a lot of that going on.

His main gardening interest is in heirloom plants, "plants that have been grown in the South and exchanged and handed down," he said. "My favorite are crinums. The old-fashioned name is cemetery lilies or milk and wine lilies. Most people don't even realize what they are because they're not something you can buy in a nursery. I think they've kept me from having a heart attack."

He admitted retirement will take some getting used to.

"I've lived my whole life since I left home looking at my watch every 10 or 15 minutes, and I'm not complaining. My life has been a schedule for so many years, it's going to be strange not to have a meeting at 10 and something else at 1, and for a short time I want to see what it's like," he said.

He said he wanted the citizens of Newton County to know how much he appreciates them.

"I sincerely want to thank all those folks through the years who have been my friends and who have helped me, and in a lot of cases tolerated me," he said. "I can't think of a better way to have spent my life."

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newotncitizen.com.