Former Greene County Sheriff Willie Morris died yesterday, apparently a suicide. Willie is a figure that looms large in my life - he was the sheriff when I started my newspaper career and the first lawman I really got to know. There are a lot of people in the world described as Larger Than Life, but Willie really deserved the title.
He was a champion weight lifter - and as a result a huge man physically - with no real law enforcement experience when he ran for office in 1983. He had been a professional painter and a bar bouncer. He said he just got fed up with the crime and disorder under the old sheriff and figured he needed to do something to make the county a better place.
And he did. He clamped down hard on the gunplay that made little rural Greene County a hotspot of homicides - there were no killings between the time he took office and late 1993. He delighted in drug raids - Greene County is ideal marijuana territory and Willie loved bounding out across dirt roads to pounce on some hidden pot field. And he became famous for running speed traps and drunken driving checkpoints. Drinking and driving had once been a weekend pass time in Greene, but it turned into a very bad idea in his county.
Willie was far from perfect as sheriff, of course. Because he had no professional law enforcement background, he managed more by enthusiasm than by proper methods. He didn't seem to pay much attention to legal niceties and he had no time at all for the sheriffs in nearby counties, many of whom were former State Troopers. He thought they were stuffy and they thought he was a dangerous loose cannon. And he did have a bad, bad temper. He legendarily beat up his brother Clyde, who was just as strong and big-hearted as Willie but had a little trouble with the bottle and spent a fair bit of time on the wrong side of the Law (and as a result, on the wrong side of Willie).
There were a lot of people in Greene who thought Willie was corrupt or incompetent. I doubt that though - I certainly never saw any evidence to back up the corruption rumors and the crime stats certainly speak for themselves in terms of Willie's effectiveness, however unconventional (and perhaps even occasionally unconstitutional) his methods.
The guy I knew had a heart as big as his muscles. He was more than kind and understanding with me, a young, out of place, inexperienced reporter. He expected a lot from his men, but he was always willing to give them a second chance, sometimes too much of a second chance.
And he was brave and dedicated to Greene County. He took a shotgun blast to the face one day in 1991 while helping a woman leave her abusive husband. The doctors down at UVA hospital told me that the main reason he even survived was the thick ropes of muscle under his skin - that blast would have killed me, or most other humans. The doctors never were able to remove all the pellets - they were lodged too close to his spine to safely remove. I know Willie suffered horrible pain the rest of his life from that. I don't know if that had anything to do with his sad end, but it wouldn't surprise me.
Of all the things I'll remember about him, though, it is his hands. He had huge, gnarled, strong hands. When you shook hands with Willie, you knew it. He loved to look good in a crisp brown uniform, with his black belt polished to a fine shine. He'd stand there proudly with those big hands planted firmly on his holster and radio. That picture is as clear in my mind as the day I was there.
This is a photo I took of Willie, probably on some drug raid, some time in mid-1990. He was absolutely in his prime, months before the shooting. It's a shock to realize he's about the same age here that I am now. And this is how he will always be fixed in my mind.
Here's a profile of him I wrote in 1990 as part of a big series trying to explain to everyone what their five main elected officials, known as Constitutional Officers, actually did for a living.
Those years I spent in Greene loom large in my life and my memory. And Willie was a big part of it. He's a big figure in some of my favorite journalism stories. That story about the day he was shot was technically complicated, for example, by the fact that all three main characters - the sheriff, the woman, and her husband the shooter - were named Morris. And to complicate matters, Willie was related to Mrs. Morris but not Mr. Morris. Try sorting that one out in print sometime.
Willie also uttered my favorite line about law enforcement. One day we were talking about some crime story I was writing and I asked him about something stupid the criminals had done that had given them away. He leaned across the desk and looked me closely in the eye and said, "When smart people begin committing crimes you and I are in big trouble."
I haven't seen or talked to Willie in maybe 15 years, but I think of him often. And now I'm going to miss him.