COVINGTON, Ga. — Sheriff Ezell Brown said his predecessor, Joe Nichols, asked him in 2020 if a street sign bearing Nichols' name near the sheriff's office’s Alcovy Road headquarters was still in place.
"My reply was, 'You built the jail. They named the street after you. It will forever be Joe Nichols Boulevard,'” Brown said. “That made his day.”
Friends and former colleagues last week were mourning the 77-year-old former Newton County sheriff and chief deputy after his Monday, May 10, death in Statesboro.
A private “Celebration of Life” service was planned, according to an obituary from Rinehart and Sons Funeral Home in Statesboro.
Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Lois Hires Nichols; two sons, Joe Nichols III of Chicago, Illinois, and Josh Nichols of St. Simons Island; and six grandchildren.
Nichols had a 37-year career in law enforcement in Covington and Newton County. He served as sheriff from 1996 to 2008 after working as chief deputy for 20 years for his predecessor, Gerald Malcom.
The Jesup native and his wife had moved to southeast Georgia upon his retirement as sheriff, said longtime friend and former county coroner Bob Wheeler.
Wheeler, who served five terms as coroner from 1988 to 2008, said he talked regularly to Nichols and last talked to him on Sunday, May 9.
He said he was shocked to hear about Nichols’ sudden passing.
“He was probably my best friend,” Wheeler said. “It was a tough pill to swallow.”
Nichols was a native of Wayne County and was born into a military family. After graduating from Wayne County High School, he attended Georgia Military College and earned a degree in Criminal Justice.
He moved to Covington and worked for the Covington Police Department for five years.
Nichols then joined the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, served as chief deputy and won his first of three terms as sheriff by defeating fellow sheriff’s office employee Ezell Brown in 1996.
He is credited with helping establish the joint Covington Police-Newton County Sheriff’s SWAT Team.
Nichols also planned the current sheriff’s office and detention center facility on Alcovy Road to replace an outdated building in downtown Covington.
Newton County voters approved a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in 2000 that included $27 million for the new facility. Subsequent referendums have been used to fund additions to the jail and administrative parts of the facility, according to county records.
Clerk of Courts Linda Hays, who has served in the position since 1983, said Nichols was a “good friend” with whom she worked through his rise up the ranks of the sheriff’s office.
Hays said Nichols worked hard to convince county residents about the need for the SPLOST funding to build the current headquarters and jail, which was completed in the early 2000s.
Hays said Nichols was among a series of good sheriffs Newton County has seen, including Gerald Malcom from 1976 to 1996 and Brown from 2008 to the present.
The Clerk of Courts often works closely with the sheriff’s office, which is responsible for courthouse and courtroom security, among other tasks.
“(Nichols) did a great job as our sheriff,” Hays said. “I’ve had some good sheriffs to work with.”
Superior Court Judge John Ott, who has served as judge since 1990, said he was an assistant district attorney in 1981 when he first met Nichols. Ott would go on to work with him for 15 years as each earned election to higher offices.
Ott said Nichols was “a consummate professional” who was a servant of the people who elected him.
“He made Newton County proud,” the judge said.
He said Nichols had a steady demeanor and was “totally professional and competent” in his job while remaining a humble person.
“He never wanted the spotlight,” Ott recalled.
Wheeler said other counties may have seen conflicts between sheriffs and coroners but not Newton County when Nichols served as sheriff and chief deputy. The coroner is responsible for investigating suspicious deaths and often works with law enforcement agencies.
“There were never any misunderstandings. I always knew the sheriff’s office would have my back,” Wheeler said.
He said he considered retiring from the coroner position in 2004 but Nichols talked him into serving one more term so they could leave office at the same time in 2008.
“I didn’t know anybody who said anything bad about him,” Wheeler said. “At least they never said it to me.”
Brown worked alongside Nichols for more than three decades and succeeded him after Nichols decided not to seek a fourth consecutive term in 2008.
"What do you say about an individual who is no longer here but who shared your law enforcement space for so many years?" Brown asked.
Brown said he and Nichols shared the common experience of being south Georgia natives who began their careers with the Covington Police Department and “made Newton County our home.”
"He was my first opponent in the race for the position of sheriff (in 1996) to whom I pledged my support for as long as he served the citizens of Newton County,” Brown said.
“He was the last sheriff under whom I served who came to me, told me he was retiring, and personally told me that it was my turn to lead," Brown said.
"He was the former chief deputy whom I reported to and worked alongside in the office, as well as in the field.
Nichols also was one of six original members of the Covington-Newton County SWAT Team in 1979 “with whom a lifetime bond was formed — a bond that could never be broken," Brown said.
Brown said Nichols "congratulated me on election night and for every achievement, thereafter."
Nichols also was “thrilled” when the Newton County Sheriff’s Office was recognized as a Triple Crown Agency — a designation given by the National Sheriffs’ Association for an agency’s accreditation by three different law enforcement and correctional organizations.
"He was one of our greatest cheerleaders," Brown said.
He said he and Nichols shared a joke recently about their graying hair.
“He once told me my hair was graying. I told him, 'Your hair is turning gray, too. My hair is staying with me, though, and yours is leaving you.'"
"I extend my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. A loss of this type is never easy. The Newton County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association will sincerely miss him. In fact, I was planning to stop by for a visit soon."