ST. LOUIS (AP) — With a demeanor matching his colorful name, eight-term Sheriff Mearl J. Justus stubbornly wanted to stay in office for just a few more months — enough time to reach six decades in law enforcement.
But at 81, his health simply wouldn’t allow it, his wife said Wednesday.
The longtime sheriff of Illinois’ St. Clair County abruptly resigned Tuesday, turning in his badge nearly two months after having had his gallbladder removed.
“He’s really a sick man,” Audrey Justus, 78, said of her husband, who was in the hospital Wednesday for a procedure. “He’s 81, and he’s ready (for retirement). He was hoping to make it until May to have 60 years in law enforcement. I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it. Nobody cares.’”
“He kept telling me, ‘I can tell it’s time for me to quit.’ He knew it, and he’ll miss it.”
So ended the storied career of the lawman who first took office in 1982. He considered his name a badge of honor as memorable as his disarming dry humor and savvy though not always conventional politics.
For years, his official website showed Justus modeling a sombrero, showing off a picture of his parking spot, admitting a fondness for the Three Stooges and letting visitors disfigure his portrait. Before Justus moved recently to a retirement village, he lived with his wife in a rent-free apartment atop the building that housed his department and jail. He figured that was where he needed to be.
Justus told The Associated Press in 2006 his mother “kind of went off the deep end” after his father died when he was a toddler, and he was raised poor by his grandparents. He didn’t finish high school but got his GED before being recruited in 1953 by the mayor of tiny Cahokia to be a part-timer on that Illinois village’s police force.
After 22 years as Cahokia’s police chief, he plunged into politics in 1982, won the sheriff’s gig and never lost since, burnishing his reputation for creativity and charity.
The Democrat has staged a fundraiser for a women’s crisis center by holding a “Slumber in the Slammer,” during which every $100 donor got a night behind bars. He sold ads on his patrol cars to help fund education programs, and he rounded up fugitives by getting them to respond to bogus notices that they’d won free sneakers.
“If you ever heard him as a master of ceremonies, that guy has a knack for public speaking and a flair for comedy. You never knew one moment to the next what was coming out of his mouth,” said Bob Hertz, the sheriff in neighboring Madison County. Yet “he doesn’t beat around the bush and will tell it like it is, based not only on his inner fiber of being a cordial man but also his vast experience.”
Along the way, the former president of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association once arranged a cataract surgery for a woman who’d lost her savings to a robber. And he helped free a man wrongly convicted of killing a drug informant.
Justus worked his department’s jail — some call it “Hotel Justus” — almost like a campaign rope line. At least once a week he’d inspect it and eat the food while often sporting goofy neckwear, including a tie adorned with smiley faces with lipstick smooch marks.
“In this business, to keep from going off the deep end, you need that humor,” Justus has said.
He rarely carried a gun, once explaining he found it bulky and “tears my clothes up.” He doesn’t drink or smoke and has stared down health issues before as an insulin-dependent diabetic who had open heart surgery in 1996.
With his departure Tuesday, Undersheriff Rick Watson temporarily replaces Justus until the county board appoints someone who will serve until a special election.
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