CORDELE — A fight broke out a decade ago in the South Central Georgia town of Cordele. It ended a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if there was a winner, but there was a victor.
It was 10 years ago when Sheriff Donnie Haralson heard the words no one wants to hear: You’ve got cancer.
Haralson had been sheriff in Crisp County since 1987.
Law enforcement was the family business. His daddy was a police officer for a number of years and was killed in the line of duty.
Folks were not surprised when his tall, dark-haired son went to the police academy at Tifton to become a lawman. He eventually would become chief of the Cordele Police Department.
When the sitting sheriff was arrested (and later convicted) on federal charges, the governor appointed Haralson to take his place. The voters returned him to office seven times and he was elected by his colleagues to head the sheriff’s association. He also served on the Georgia Board of Public Safety and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
The people here clearly loved the sheriff, but they never knew what a fighter he was until he got sick.
The odds were never in his favor. A lesser man would have been gone years before. But Donnie Haralson wasn’t listening to the oddsmakers; he was listening to his heart.
When the regular treatments didn’t work, he sought all kinds of experimental treatment at some of the best research hospitals in the country. His health ebbed and flowed, but Haralson hung in. He lived to see the arrival of grandchildren and from all indications, they had a mutual admiration society.
When I met him a couple of years ago, I knew he was a sick man, but his eyes held a sure determination. I left with the feeling that if anybody could beat cancer, it was this guy.
In the past year, folks displayed ribbons and wore armbands to show their support for their sheriff. Churches had special prayers for him and folks didn’t blink an eye when they returned him to office two years ago.
I don’t think Donnie Haralson ever gave up his fight. I think, instead, a merciful God said “enough” and brought the fight to a conclusion.
The First Baptist Church was overflowing and the local TV station televised the funeral for those who couldn’t get inside. Along the route to the church and cemetery, the streets were lined with folks who stood in quiet admiration of their faithful warrior.
In the late afternoon as he was laid to rest, the crowd in the cemetery reflected the community. A black man and his children stood at a distance and watched, as did a Hispanic family that included a little girl in leg braces who stood silently and in awe.
The winners were the citizens of Crisp County. They learned firsthand what courage and determination looked like.
Donnie Haralson was a good sheriff, but he was a great man. The imprint of his influence will be evident for years to come.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.