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Temples of Democracy
There are over 3,000 county courthouse across the country -- staunch hometown symbols of our faith in our ability to govern ourselves
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
County Sheriff is a job that comes with not only a salary and a police cruiser but a persona. The folklore that clings to a county sheriff is strong—the fearless sheriff seen in Western films, the fearsome sheriff seen in Southern civil rights demonstrations. In New England, where the sheriff is often just the man in charge of the jail, I have seen sheriffs who could be mistaken for the county clerk or an assistant district attorney, but most of the sheriffs I have met look like sheriffs. They wear a star. They wear a wide-brimmed hat. They often wear boots. They like large silver belt buckles. A lot of sheriffs walk alike and talk alike and wear their stomachs over their gun belts in the same style. A sheriff I once knew in Cole County, Missouri, outraged an Iranian exchange student who wouldn’t walk to his cell on his own two feet by saying, in what I have come to think of as a Sheriff Accent, “Well, jus’ lay there you damn Commanus.” The student’s anger at being called a Communist, I decided, was based on the assumption that the word was meant to describe political ideology; he didn’t realize that a county sheriff might call a man a Communist as an alternative to calling him a sissy or a yellow dog. A lot of sheriffs-compassionate sheriffs as well as brutal sheriffs, sophisticated sheriffs as well as xenophobic sheriffs—do a Sheriff Act.
I suppose there are sheriffs these days who wear double-knit suits and sheriffs with computerized headquarters and even sheriffs who act like those coldly polite, sharply creased state troopers who call everybody “sir” while continuing to complete the required report. But the sheriff whose picture I carry in my mind looks something like the sheriff of Cole County, Missouri—a man I once described as having “an old-fashioned countysheriff speech pattern that tends to relax the formality of his headquarters, as well as an old-fashioned county-sheriff build that tends to tighten the pressure on the lower buttons of his shirt.” He is asking me where I am really from. And I am telling him that I am really from right there in Missouri—over around Jackson County.