Robert Simpson Remembered: Served Six Terms As Cannon Sheriff
EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Simpson, who served as Cannon County Sheriff longer than any person in history, passed away last week. Cannon Courier contributing writer Bob Stoetzel, himself a former sheriff, spoke with many of Simpson’s friends and colleagues and penned the following remembrance. June 1964: Robert Simpson is Candidate for County Sheriff in August Election Robert Simpson, a native of the Burt Community of the 4th civil district, this week authorized the Courier to announce his candidacy for the office of Sheriff of Cannon County, subject to the approval of the registered voters at the polls on Election Day Thursday August 6th. Mr. Simpson was born in this county and is the son of Mrs. Eunice Jones Simpson and the late Hiliary Simpson, a prominent family name in the southern section of the county. In announcing, Mr. Simpson stated that he would enforce the state and county laws without favor or partiality to anyone. He promises to employ men with good character to serve as his deputies. The Sheriff’s office belongs to the people of this county and it would be his policy to be on call 24 hours a day when he was needed. On Thursday, August 6th, he will appreciate your vote and active support for this important office. Robert won that election with 2,213 votes and every subsequent election he always held a voting number close to that or more. He always knew how many votes he could garner in an election. The Beginning And with that started the career of this man that became the longest serving Sheriff in Cannon County Tennessee. Robert Simpson told me that he was the youngest man elected to the office of Sheriff in our county; he was 30 years old at the time of his election. I suppose Tip Smith would have been next to him in years, but nobody so far has passed him. Robert died on Tuesday the 16th of February after a long illness. He was a big part of the political scene in Cannon County history in the last 45 years or so. Many people of the county have worked with Robert; I have called some of these people to talk to them about their relationship with him. Current Sheriff Billy Nichols had this to say about Robert: “I first met Robert at the Colonial Shirt Factory in the early 1960’s. We were both working together and we became friends. He decided at that time that he wanted to run for Sheriff, he was in his late 20s or early 30s. People said he was too young and could not be elected. This was in 1964 and he won. He actually married my cousin. Robert was a man who always had a smile on his face and if you met him on the highway he would always wave and throw up his hand to you. He would go out of his way to help the elderly people and see to their needs. Robert was a big imposing figure of a man but had a warm and gentle heart. Robert could arrest you today and still be your friend tomorrow. People liked and respected him. He could do the job, if he came to arrest someone he could do it the easy way or the hard way, that was to up to you. If he came to get you, you left with him. In 2006 when I decided to run for Sheriff I went and talked with Robert and he gave me a lot of good advice. He was good politician and was a wealth of knowledge. I asked him often about his thoughts on politics and he was always correct in his answer. Through the years he advised hundreds of candidates. I will miss Robert a lot as will many, many people. I want to extend my condolences to his wife Elizabeth, their daughter Virginia, his grandsons and the rest of the Simpson family. They have deepest sympathy and condolences in this time of sorrow.” Almost every one that knew him had commented on his acute memory, Robert would remember dates when things have happened in the county’s history. If you needed to know a specific date you could ask Robert and he would know. As Sheriff when I needed to know something when it came to a date or death or a trial I could call him and find out about it, that was always amazing to me. When talking to long time Circuit Court Clerk Hoppy Davenport one of the first things out of his mouth was “he had an excellent memory and he knew everyone,” Hoppy said that he would ask Robert where someone lived to be able to get a paper out to them and Robert knew right off where they lived. “He always treated me good’ he said. He didn’t want to make anybody mad. Former Clerk and Master Lois Gilley Larimer said of Robert; “he was so kind to the people and he had the best memory, he was always so helpful to this office when someone under the Clerk’s care had to be moved to a nursing home, he would always be there to talk to them, they trusted Robert to tell them the truth.” He was really a kind hearted man, she stated. I talked with Gracie Reed on the phone; Gracie worked for Robert when he first went in to office in 1986. “I started as a dispatcher and then moved up, finally I was like the administrator, and I was the secretary and bookkeeper and went to meetings when he couldn’t go.” Gracie said that Robert was easy to work for and treated everyone like family. In fact she said, “We worked like a big family and when it was time to move to the new jail he said Robert hated the move because he said it would never be the same and that we wouldn’t be like a family anymore.” And he was right said Gracie, something over there took away from the family atmosphere and she and Robert would talk about it and he would always say “he wished he was back at the old jail.” Buddy Black out on Bull Pen Creek Road was Robert’s Chief Deputy for the last two terms of his office. Buddy is a mule skinner from way back and Robert had his mules. Buddy said that he has really only known Robert for the last 40 years and when they did meet they really hit it off real good. And when he was Sheriff and Buddy worked for him, they were inseparable; if Robert wasn’t at home we were walking in each other’s tracks. “He was really a great person and when he told you something he meant it and would hold to it. He was a good friend to me.” James B. Jernigan of the Bradyville Route had been a County Commissioner since 1950 up until around 2002. He had been on the Commission through a lot of Sheriffs and he told me that “Robert was a good Sheriff but he was also too good (easy) to be Sheriff. He hardly ever carried a gun and he was never violent towards anybody, but if someone didn’t do as they were told, he was big enough to take them to jail.” When budget time came he would send someone to stand in his stead and we would give him what we could and if the money wasn’t there he would lay somebody off, said Jernigan. Robert wanted to keep the jail as simple as he could. “When we had the federal government telling the county that we were going to have to build a new jail, Robert didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and when we did build it we had to just about carry him in the jail” he laughed. But when he went in to the new jail the federal government stopped the lawsuit. Shortly after that Robert retired, all he wanted to do was keep it simple, he didn’t want anything too technical. James B. finished with the fact that Robert could” remember names and dates and peoples birthday, he was a smart man.” Bill Avera was the former Chief of Police for the town of Woodbury and had been in law enforcement here in the county since 1979. He said he thought Robert made a good sheriff and he will be missed by a lot of people. Dr. Leon Reuhland has worked with every sheriff since Burton Moulder to present day and he says he hasn’t had any problem getting along with any of them. He came to Cannon County when Burton was in office and then there was Avon Conley and then Robert Simpson and Robert Bogle. Dr. Reuhland has been the Medical Examiner here many years. He worked with me when I was sheriff and all the ones since and says he never had any problems with the sheriff.” He says of Robert that he got along with any agency that came to his county. He worked well with the TBI and has friends to this day on the TBI. One such agent that worked well with Robert on the TBI was Charles Lee; he formed a good relationship with him. Charles later left the TBI to become an attorney and then he was judge in Marshall County. Dr. Reuhland was asked by Elizabeth Simpson to try and track Lee down, which the Dr. did, however he is now living in Florida. Dr. Reuhland said that it is sad when any one passes, but he will really miss Robert. I suppose there are many stories out there that could be told where Robert was involved. When he employed his two nephews on a part time basis Ellis (Bo) and Charley (Jr.) Brandon they always called him “Uncle Robert” where as we all had to call him Sheriff or Robert. I started calling him Uncle Robert myself and soon most of the men were also. Eddie Strope who had worked with Robert at the old jail said “Uncle Robert was a lot of fun and never got excited; he just took everything in stride, laid back and easy going. I do know he liked two things and that was a sharp knife and a good piece of cedar.” Robert wasn’t Sheriff all the time, he has worked for the shirt factory and was an employee of the Highway Department and he worked for Jerry Pelham. “I have known Robert before he was sheriff, he was working for Eugene Reed when Gene was murdered and after a while he left them and came to work for me, Jerry said. He was driving one of my car haulers and would pick up cars for me and deliver parts.” He told me that he was going to run for sheriff again which he did, Jerry said, but Robert Bogle kept the office in that election. Robert wanted to do something for me to where he stayed in the county so he could see the people more often. The next time he made it. “Robert was good at politics Jerry said and he was well liked. He always remembered my birthday too, Jerry concluded. Last but certainly not least of people that worked well with Robert Simpson was Harold Patrick now Clerk and Master, but was the then County Executive during Robert’s last two terms. Harold said that “Robert was a good man to work with, he always stayed within his budgets and when he told you something you could depend on it.” He also said that Robert was a good rural sheriff and when he had to move to the new jail, he stopped liking the job as sheriff, “he told me many times that year that he would no longer run for the office and that he was going to retire:. And he did. Robert will always be in the annals of Cannon County, he has become immortal in that case because his name will always be located somewhere on a building or in a book. When I took over as Sheriff in 1994 from Robert he said that it was more of a job for someone younger, “like you” he said. He had told me it had changed so much and then he said “you know Bob I make more now in a month as Sheriff than I did all year when I had started out.” Yes it was a different day then Robert, and it will always change. To Robert Simpson from his many friends.