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Sheriff Pete Smith: A community remembers

BY:  Tracy K. Hall

We had a sheriff named Pete Smith. I like to think with such an honest and American name as Pete Smith there was no other option but to be the sheriff.  With a name like Pete Smith you are bound to be steady and reliable. With a name like Pete Smith you have no other option but to own one of the richest southern accents and have a penchant to tell the greatest stories. Perhaps you’re bound to marry a gregarious girl named Dot and be a daddy to 3 beautiful girls. With a name like Pete Smith and the heart of a gentleman, you surely will become one of the community’s most beloved neighbors. It was bound to happen. And it did.

I have been given the impossible task of putting words to the life of Sheriff Pete Smith. My words never will be big enough to capture his spirit. Pete Smith was more than our sheriff. Pete Smith is an institution. Sometimes we are asked to do something so large, we must seek out others to help us in our mission. So, much like Pete would do, I called in the troops. I asked the folks who walked beside him to share a word on the man who us Sumter Countians know to be a grand example of what it means to be a public servant. I called them in to share a piece of their life’s story and open a window onto what it looked like to share a space and time with Sheriff Pete. Our words are puny. Our experiences are anything but.

Tracy K. Hall, Sumter County Resident:
I came to know Pete best after my “unfortunate porch incident.” In May of 2015, I was robbed and pistol whipped by 3 men on my Lee Street porch. It was as traumatic as you imagine it to be. But perhaps even more traumatized than me, my daddy showed up to the scene completely expressionless. There was nothing. No panic, no anger, no anything but nothingness. I’ve come to realize that daddies don’t process their daughters being treated in such a way. They know nothing but to breathe in and out and simply be present. Daddy is strong. He is wise. He is passionately protective of his family. When that protection gets breached after investing 44 years-worth of energy into it, it is devastating. He had gone numb, as only pain and the realization that ugly things happen can make you do. I was in no place to bring my daddy back, nor did he ask me. Pete never had to be asked. Pete is a daddy too. He knew. Before Pete called me, he put first things first, and called my daddy. To this day I don’t know what he said, or how he said it, but it hit daddy’s reset button. It put daddy at peace. It was enough for daddy to not only let me move back to this place with the porch attached to it, but to encourage me to do it. Whatever Pete Smith told him, it was enough for my daddy to trust me to our community again. I don’t know what Pete told daddy, but quite often I’d catch Pete slowly drive by my house. Perhaps my eye had grown sensitive to patrol cars, but I promise you I noticed Sumter County Sheriff Office vehicles pass more frequently than I once had. Certainly, those patrol cars had never stopped, watch me pull into my drive, and wait until I was safely in my house before they left. But now they do. I don’t know what Pete said to daddy, but I know it was enough. I have a strong feeling it was indeed a promise made and a promise kept.

Mike Tracy, Retired Chief of Public Safety, GSW:

It was the worst day of my professional career and in the top tier of worst days of my life.

I had just witnessed the death of two officers, both my friends, one my direct employee.

We were running just as hard as we could to protect our campus from an active shooter with our minimal staff. We were doing anything we could to facilitate the search for and capture of the man who murdered my friends. The sheer number of police agencies and sheriff’s departments was difficult to process.

In all the events Sumter County Sheriff’s Office had voluntarily taken a vital and active role. Chief Bryant and crew took on essential tasks that nobody else had the manpower for.

One face we were used to having, was not there. Sheriff Pete Smith is and had been a staple figure in our community for years and due to serious health issues, he was not able to work.

The light of day was waning as I pulled up to the command center, trying to get the day’s events and the future into focus. Walking toward the building, I heard somebody call me out by name. They were parked in a blue truck in the driveway near the center. I tried to see inside the truck, but I could not. As I drew closer however I saw it was Pete.

Anyone who knows Pete knows he is a solid guy. With forty years of experience, knowledge of the job that only comes from being in it, and that special ability to simplify huge problems, he is a major factor in difficult times. I can’t even tell you the particulars of our conversation that night. I can tell you that that man pulled himself out of his sick bed to come give whatever he could to law enforcement and his community. He could not even get out of the truck, but he was there asking questions and helping his people deal with everything. It made a serious impression on me.

That kind of care and concern can’t be bought. It is a gift that must be given from a place not all of us can go. He gave it that night. I for one, was the better for it.

Trent J. Rundle, Sumter County Resident:

Mr. Pete was a longtime family friend of mine, and I was saddened to hear of his passing. No matter where or when I saw him, he would always have a smile on his face and stretch his hand out for a handshake. I can remember four years ago, at his election party, how many people came out to celebrate him. He took time to make sure he talked to everyone there and ask about them personally. We were there for him, but to be completely honest, he was there doing what he loved, which was talking to people. That is just the kind of person he was. When asked to write something about Mr. Pete, I was absolutely honored. I couldn’t think of anything better to honor him and all he did for this county. He was an amazing friend, sheriff, husband, father and Paw-Paw to so many people. He will be terribly missed by this community and my thoughts and prayers are with his family and all the people that knew him.

Chuck Hanks, Retired Lieutenant from Sumter County Sheriff’s Department:

I met Pete Smith when he and I were both young officers in 1978. At that time, I was a Deputy Sheriff working for Sheriff Randy Howard and Pete was a Georgia State Trooper here at Post 10 in Americus. Pete has always been a dedicated law enforcement officer and although Pete was only five years older than me, I looked up to him as a big brother and a mentor. I had the pleasure to serve the citizens of Sumter County when Sheriff Pete asked me to come work for him in 2011. I was thrilled and honored that Pete would ask me to be part of his team at the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.

As a criminal investigator, I worked closely with Pete on criminal cases. Pete would always show up at all the major crime scenes to assist, no matter the time of day or night. Pete and I spent many hours together working robberies, murders and suicides, all the unpleasant parts of investigations. I relied on Pete’s strength, knowledge and experience.

Pete was the best of the best of the old school cops. Pete loved his family and friends, and he loved his officers and the citizens of Sumter County. He will be truly missed by everyone he touched with his smile, his kind words and his true stories of the good ole’ days. Rest in peace my old friend you earned it.

  1. Rucker Smith, Chief Judge, Southwestern Judicial Circuit:

I knew Sheriff Pete Smith my entire life. His wife Dot and I played on the monkey bars together in Mrs. Williams first grade class at Furlow Elementary School and Dot and I graduated from Americus High School together 12 years later. While Pete and I were both Smiths, we were not related unless I was stopped for speeding by a trooper, then Pete became my favorite cousin.

I tried my first vehicular homicide with Pete in 1981 and professionally we worked together for 39 years. Pete was just what you would want for a South Georgia Sheriff. He knew everyone in the community and every back road. He knew who was related to who and how to locate someone if necessary. He could be folksy but still be firm. If Pete told someone to get in the back of his patrol car, he may do it in a nice way, but the defendant knew he needed to comply with Pete’s instructions. Pete cared about his citizens and we could see it. Pete respected us and we respected him. He was a good Sheriff and good citizen. It was an honor to have worked with him and to have been his friend. Our community is a better place for the time he was with us. He will be missed.

Danny Whittaker, Retired Georgia State Patrol:

I first met Pete in the mid 80’s when we were both troopers, he was stationed in Cordele and I was at the Americus Patrol post.  Later, Pete transferred to Americus and it didn’t take very long for our friendship to grow even tighter.  I was once told that you can tell what’s really important in someone’s life by listening to the first 30 minutes of your conversation with that person.  What was important to Pete was his love for people and hunting, in that order, and he talked about both regularly.  Pete knew everyone.  If Pete didn’t know you, then you didn’t exist.  He knew most people’s family tree better than they did.  You learned quickly that going out to eat lunch with Pete was never just an hour event.  People would stop by our table and talk, talk and talk.  You could NEVER, EVER go anywhere with him that others didn’t stop to talk. He would gladly stop whatever he was doing, meet them with a smile and hand shake, and before the conversation was over, he would always ask how their mom or dad was doing or ask about their children, calling each by name.  Pete loved people.

You could always tell when hunting season was about to begin because our work schedule would reflect Pete going on vacation for days – or weeks at the time.  His love for hunting was often intoxicating.  Listening to the details of his stories was as if you were actually present when things happened. I remember one particular afternoon when I had just walked into the patrol post.  I was arriving at work and Pete was getting ready to go home and begin his “vacation”.  We were both standing in the radio room which, at that time, adjoined the driver’s license office with only an open door separating the two rooms.  Pete talked about how excited he was for an upcoming turkey hunt.  I mentioned that I had hunted most animals in Georgia, but I had never been turkey hunting.  I remember that blank stare on his face when I said this. He was in utter disbelief.  It was like I had just stepped off a UFO or something.  He just couldn’t believe I had never gone turkey hunting before.  I asked him what all the excitement was about; what made it so different from all the other hunts?  Pete then began giving his rendition of what it’s like to turkey hunt. He said that there was no greater high than when you call-up a gobbler, see him walk up to you, flaring his feathers, dancing around and gobbling. What made the description even funnier, was that Pete was actually imitating a turkey the entire time. He was crouched down, hands tucked into his arm pits, flapping his arms up and down (like a bird flying) and was duck walking all around the room gobbling loudly just like a turkey. If that wasn’t funny enough, all the people who were waiting to get a drivers’ license in the next room were looking through the open door at this grey haired Trooper bobbing up and down, arms flapping and gobbling like a turkey.  I was crying with laughter.

You were definitely one of the good ones Pete and you will be sorely missed.

Renae Barnes, Sumter County Resident:

Loss is heavy. The loss of someone like Pete Smith feels extra heavy for me. I can’t seem to reign in my emotions about this great man. My heart is broken for his beloved Dot and his 3 girls. A Daddy is a special creature. Mr. Pete was no exception. While he was busy being a Daddy to his girls, he was also nurturing this community in much the same way. He protected Sumter County, he provided for Sumter County, he stood up for Sumter County, he was a champion for Sumter County, but most of all, he loved Sumter County. He loved us so hard. I can only imagine having to share such a wonderful man with so many others, so thank you, Hope, Kerri and Amy. Thank you for sharing a Daddy who never saw me without a “Hey Gal!”, a big hug and an immediate question about how my family was doing, a Daddy who always wanted to know how things were at “the river”, a Daddy who would stop by our business just to say hello and see if there was anything we needed, most especially a Daddy who made sure my family had an escort from our house at the lake, to the church for MY Daddy’s funeral.

There are no words to properly explain what losing your Daddy feels like. There will be a hole in your heart that will forever remain as a symbol of the Daddy who held your hand when you learned to walk and taught you how to ride a bike and didn’t want to let go as he walked you down the aisle. You’ll wonder if God really is good. He is. You’ll demand to know if His way really is best. It is. You’ll doubt that his timing is perfect. It is. You’ll question that there is purpose to this plan. There is. To the 3 of you, cling to your Heavenly Father with all the strength you have left. Each wave of grief passes through His hands first. Each tear you cry, He sees. Mr. Pete didn’t tell us how to live; he lived and let us watch. What an amazing life your Daddy led; a total class act. He left a permanent imprint on the hearts of everyone who knew him. His warm and giving spirit will live on in all of us. 

 

Mark Israel, Sumter County Resident:

Writing something short about Pete and I is virtually impossible. Where does a man begin with a friendship that started 44 years ago? So today, I’ll start at the beginning. I’m not really sure where I met Pete for the first time; probably on a dove field or either one of our famous duck shoots we had back in the day. I was about 14 years old or so, that would put Pete around 28/30 range I would guess. Honestly, I don’t know how we ended up being so close with the age difference between us, but there was a time when we were inseparable.

One thing I do remember from my first few times being around Pete was his magnetism. I couldn’t get enough of hanging around Pete and I’m sure many of you felt the same way. Honestly I don’t know why he took to me like he did, I was just a young guy in that difficult time in life for boys, just before I was old enough for driver’s license, but he did.  He was good to me when he didn’t have to be.

Probably my most precious memory of Pete is the beginning. I wasn’t old enough to drive, I played on a basketball team in another town. My parents didn’t go to all the away games and sometimes it was tough to get to Dawson to the bus. (Parents back then weren’t like they are today) There were quite a few times when his shift was right and we had an away game that Pete would come pick me up at home, drive me to the school in what I believe was a baby blue state patrol car with the old bubblegum machine on top.  (Post 10 covered Dawson back then I also believe) He put me on that bus a lot of days to go and when we got back that night, sometimes at 11:30 or 12:00, he would be sitting right there in that parking lot waiting to take me home. You just can’t beat that for a friend.

Pete and I hunted all over the planet. Ducks, dove, deer, quail and even shined a rabbit or two, wait no!! That’s illegal!!  We have had a million adventures that I could tell stories about for hours. I cried on his and Dot’s shoulder over my broken heart just like I cried for an hour when Amy told me he was struggling to breathe. Pete was my buddy and confidant. I spent hours and hours at Pete and Dot’s house. Their girls sat in my lap and drove my Bronco around the farm later in life. But today I would rather you see how he gave his time and effort to a young man for nothing other than friendship.

Pete was a good man, and he had a big heart, never met a stranger and everyone he met loved him. He set a foundation of good ethics and a love for the outdoors in many young men, not just me. My heart is broken, I wouldn’t trade my time and the influence Pete Smith had on me for anything in this world. We always swore we would have one last great adventure. It was my fault we didn’t, he was always ready. Life and work kept me too busy and I’m so so sorry now. I’ve been asked several times about his passing and our relationship. The most powerful statement I can make is Pete was my friend, he was a special person to me. I am a better man today because of it. I hope you had the chance to be his friend too. If not, you truly missed something special, a real man’s man and a great influence in every aspect.

Pete’s oldest daughter, Hope S. Deriso, speaks of wanting to know he is near. On the day of his funeral, while tending to her dog, there was, for her viewing pleasure, a star shaped cloud, much like the star he wore on his chest on behalf of Sumter County. As Hope puts it, “I knew that was his way to let me know the Sheriff is still here and will always be watching over me.” We too hope that Pete will continue to watch over us. Watching over us is what Pete did best. We are grateful he claimed us as his own. With a name like Pete Smith, he was indeed bound to be an institution.  And so it shall be. Hunt on sheriff of ours, hunt on.