When Frank Hooper was just a 6-year-old hanging around the Gainesville Police Department, he always remembered seeing Earnest Eugene Earls Sr., a well-respected officer working with Hooper’s father.
Years later, Hooper would look around at the police academy to find Earls once more, now as a Hall County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
Sgt. Earls, one of the first two black Gainesville Police officers in 1963, died on Saturday. He was 82. Visitation is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Wimberly and Jackson Funeral Home, 325 Summit St., Gainesville.
“Earnest was the type of man that other men liked to be around,” Hooper said. “He was just a very friendly, personable guy.”
Earls and Royce Stephens were the first two black police officers hired by then Chief Hoyt Henry in 1963. Gainesville Police’s resident historian, retired Capt. Chad White, said the two were the first black officers in the department’s 90-year history and may be some of the first in the region’s history.
“It was a hard time,” White said. “He had to be a man of strong willpower to be able to stand up, because basically what he was doing was breaking barriers.”
Chief Carol Martin offered her condolences to Earls’ family.
“While I never had the pleasure of working with Sgt. Earls, I have great admiration for him,” Martin said in a statement. “His dedication and courage in becoming the first African-American police officer for the City of Gainesville, during the civil rights movement, shows true service above self. How better to make a change in a community than by leading the way for others to follow.”
Hooper, who retired as the department’s chief in 2009, followed in his father’s footsteps and went through the police academy in 1978 with Earls.
“Back in the early ‘60s, they didn’t have to go to the police academy and they grandfathered (Earls) in,” Hooper said. “Earnest had left law enforcement sometime or another for a little while, and because of that, he had to go to the police academy when he came back to law enforcement.”
In a sea of rookies, Earls had already had a 12-year career with the Gainesville Police Department. Hooper recalled the six weeks of commuting between Gainesville and Athens for the police academy, appreciating the wisdom he had to pass down.
“I had known him as a child, but now I was able to develop a friendship,” Hooper said.
Sitting around with all the old-timers, White recalled many a conversation praising the Earls’ good work.
“He laid a solid foundation for future African-American officers at the Gainesville Police Department, to have the opportunity to come and to build a career,” White said.
Even after Hooper became police chief, he’d sit and visit with Earls and pass the time on his front porch.
“Just a great guy with a lot of wisdom to pass on, and I always really appreciated Earnest,” he said.