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Posted: December 15, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Over and out

Newton sheriff retires after 39 years of service to county law enforcement

Photos courtesy Lois Nichols and the Newton County Sheriff's Office/

 For nearly four decades Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols has served the public — first in the Army and then in law enforcement. For many, the stern public facade is all they will ever know of Nichols, but according to friends and family, there’s a side to the sheriff that Newton County rarely sees.

Many residents would rather not see any side to a sheriff, preferring to stay as far away from the Newton County Detention Center as possible, but 65-year-old Nichols is more than sheriff. He’s a husband, married to wife Lois for 40 years. He’s a father to Joe III and Josh. And, to his three granddaughters (Meacon, 11, Abigail, 10, and Isabella, 7) and one grandson (4-year-old Aiden), he’s simply known as Papa.

Lois met Nichols when he was dating her twin sister Laura — who thought he was too straight-laced for her. Lois decided to see if there was something in Nichols that her sister wasn’t noticing and agreed to a first date on Jekyll Island — roughly 30 miles from Jesup, where they lived. There they dined at Big Boy’s. A year later they were married.

Joe III, age 39 and Josh, 37, came along shortly after. When Lois and Nichols met, he was in the military, having gone straight from a military academy to the Army. Having grown up an Army brat and only child, it was a natural progression, according to Lois. From there to law enforcement wasn’t a big jump. And it wasn’t a big surprise to Lois that he was dedicated to the job he was hired to do.

"There’s been a lot of cold meals through the years," she said with a laugh. "He missed a lot of events through the years, which was always a heart ache for him. When the kids were little, it seemed like he was always on duty at Thanksgiving and Christmas. When we go out to dinner, he has his cell phone and when we’re at church he has a pager, but when they went off, he would always say he knew that when he took the job, it came first. That will be one thing he’ll have to get used to when he retires — the phone not ringing all hours of the night. In fact, we’re disconnecting the land line on January 1."

When his youngest son was born, Lois drove herself to the hospital and Nichols friend - and Newton County coroner - Bob Wheeler met her there because Nichols was working a homicide at the time.

"Joe got to the hospital just in time for them to tell him he had a son," she said with a chuckle.

Although many may assume Nichols’ relationship with his sons would be strained due to his working so much during their childhood, Lois said that nothing could be further from the truth.

"They [Joe and Josh] have a tremendous respect for him and they always have," she said. "He’s a good sheriff because he’s a good leader and he was the same as a dad. He wasn’t the disciplinarian that people might think. He’s always thought you could reason with anybody and that included his children."

According to Lois, she once asked Joe III when he was young if anyone had ever offered him drugs. "He said ‘of course they have. But why would I take something that my daddy risks his life everyday to fight?’"

She doesn’t deny there have been tough times in the years they have been married, but Lois said that what has kept them strong throughout the years has been Nichols commitment and dedication to everything he does.

Every morning - rain or shine - Nichols shines his shoes before heading out of the house, and while in uniform he would also shine his brass before leaving. A sign of respect to the people he serves.

When the decision was made that Nichols would not run for sheriff again, it was a family one, according to Lois, much like everything else in the Nichols’ household.

"He agonized over it," she said. "He’s been sheriff since 1996 and it was a tough decision for him. I did want him to retire," she admits, "but I would have supported him if he had decided not to, just like I’ve always supported him and like he’s supported me. This has always been a family commitment."

Another person Nichols has remained committed to is Wheeler, who said the two have been friends since Nichols arrived in Covington from Jesup.

"We're more like brothers than anything else," Wheeler said. "He's one of the truest friends you could ever have. I would do anything for him and I know that he would do anything for me. When we met – it was sort of like when you meet your wife and you know that you want to spend the rest of your life with her – I just knew Joe and I would be friends for the rest of our lives."

In fact, the two are so close that when Wheeler talked about not running in the last election, Nichols asked him to go one more term with him.

"Joe asked me to stay and said that we would go out together and that's what I did," Wheeler, who retires Dec. 31, said.

"We've been through some pretty comical situations over the years – there's stories I could tell you, but you couldn't print them," he said with a laugh. "But at the end of the day we all know what the job is and we do it. You see some pretty terrible things, but when you've got your friends working right there along with you, it makes it a whole lot easier."

According to local attorney Ben Hendricks, Nichols "is the finest law enforcement person I have had the pleasure of dealing with."

"He has been my sheriff for 30 years now and he’s got a lot of integrity. I hope whoever follows him has the sense enough to have paid attention."

Hendricks said that it isn’t unusual for one of them to call the other and without introduction or preamble start to tell the other the most recent story or bit of gossip.

"He likes to tell the tale that I carried him for a ride on time," said Hendricks, "in a small sports car (a Miada) and that he had never been that scared in his life."

Hendricks continued, with a chuckle, "He said that he had been in gun battles and high-speed chases but that he had never been that scared in his life. He said he could just see the headlines in The Covington News, ‘sheriff and judge die in car accident breaking every traffic law in the book.’ Then he went out - I think the very next day - and bought himself the same car."

According to Hendricks, he first met Nichols when he was a witness during a court case.

"It would have been easy for him to shade the facts a bit but that’s just not how he’s cut. He’s an honest and straight-laced individual and I hate to see him go. He will certainly be missed."

Assistant Chief of Covington Police Almond Turner served with Nichols on the first NCSO/CPD SWAT Team and they always had a good working relationship, according to Turner.

"I think that’s something Newton County residents should be very proud of," Turner said. "The two departments have always had a good working relationship and that filters down from the top - from the leadership to the officers and the deputies."

Turner said that Nichols is, and has always been, very laid back.

"He would do anything to help you. He’s always been very respectful and caring and I have the utmost respect for him."

That didn’t stop Turner from wanting to "choke" Nichols when they were first involved in SWAT.

"We did a lot of training," Turner said. "And sometimes the stuff he would have us do - we all just wanted to choke him," he said, laughing.

Though Nichols might have had the team perform some tough training, it paid off in the long run. According to Turner the first SWAT uniforms were brown jumpsuits - reminiscent of what a plumber might wear - with a patch on the back that said ‘POLICE’ and a matching brown hat. Their SWAT vehicle was a station wagon.

When the unit went to DeKalb County for a training session one year and saw the Atlanta units in fatigues they felt a little under dressed.

"We got out of that car and people were looking at us like we were the team from Mayberry," he said laughing. "But we outperformed every single one of those units. All that training he had us doing paid off. We wanted to kill him there for awhile but we were more prepared than any of those big-city units."

Turner said that one of those crazy training session involved crossing the Yellow River on a rope.

"Some of us couldn’t swim - including me," said Turner, chuckling. "I got in the middle on the rope - and keep in mind the water was pretty brisk - and I just couldn’t go anymore. I had just completely give out. Joe, being very supportive told me that I could do it. Then he ordered them to cut the rope."

"At that point it was either get across or go in the water. But he certainly had us prepared. We definitely had some good times. He is one of the finest people I have ever known. He is definitely one of the good guys."

Although Superior Court Judge John Ott wouldn’t tell many stories, since he is scheduled to speak at Nichols’ retirement party today, he did call Nichols "bland vanilla," saying there just isn’t too much that is exciting about him.

"He’s always walked the straight and narrow, and when I say that I mean it in the best possible way."

According to Ott, Nichols has given his all to the county and being sheriff is something that is ingrained in him.

"There was never a time when he turned that off," he said. "The county has been very blessed to have someone like him."

Ott also said that he believed Nichols had said a lot of wise things over the years.

"Unfortunately I’ve only heard about a third of them," he said with a chuckle. "He talks so low I can’t hear half of what he says. So I just nod my head a lot. I’m sure he’s wondered over the years why I’m not taking his advice. It’s not because I don’t appreciate it, it’s because I never heard it."

Many have wondered if Nichols will be able to retire after having been a public servant for so long and if he would get bored in retirement; Lois believes they might be surprised at how smooth the transition would be, saying that Nichols loves old guns, reading and gardening.

"Joe entertains himself quite well," she said. "It will be an adjustment, but he’ll be fine."

She continued, saying that she planned on continuing work for a little while and that she had plans for her husband.

"I’m going to try and teach him how to cook and do the laundry. I figure I’ve handled it for the last 40 years and he can do it for the next 40," she said with a laugh. "I’m hoping he’ll have dinner on the table every night."

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