Georgia's Emergency Man
Sometimes I will watch a movie, and think, “I could write one better than that.” That has yet to be proven. But I’ve just finished a book about a Georgia man that would make a fine movie.
I can just hear my “pitch” to some big Hollywood producer.
Me: “It’s about this small-town Georgia guy. Due to some unusual circumstances, he becomes the youngest sheriff in history, at the age of 22.
Producer: “I love it already! He probably spends all his time texting and playing video games, while crime is happening all around him, right?”
Me: “Well, no. This takes place in the 1960s. So there’s no texting…”
Producer (Interrupts): “Even better! So it’s like a reverse Andy Griffith! Instead of Barney Fife being the goofball, this kid sheriff is always being bailed out by the older deputies, right?”
Me: “Wrong. I’m not thinking comedy here. This is based on a book about his life. He faced adversity, tragedy, and danger. He even arrested Patty Hearst, and had to release her under orders from the President. In fact, he met several presidents.”
Producer: “So this guy is like Forrest Gump then. They already did that movie. Well, hey, this was a good chat. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
So Hollywood might not buy it, but if you’ve lived in the south, you might be interested in Gary McConnell’s book. It is titled “It’s All About the People,” and it is fascinating.
McConnell really did become sheriff of Chattooga County at age 22. I can’t find records of anyone younger who was a sheriff, so as far as I’m concerned, he’s it. Tragedy led to his swift ascension. His father, Sheriff John Frank McConnell died suddenly at the age of 53. Young Gary, then a deputy, was asked to complete his father’s term, and he agreed to do so.
Standing six-foot-six, the new sheriff was a big target. On more than one occasion, a drunken inmate would try to fight him “just to see if he could bring down the sheriff’s big ol’ son,” McConnell told me. Those match-ups didn’t end well for the challenger.
McConnell’s first wife died young, and he adopted a lifestyle of sleeping at the jail and eating on the run. He soon ballooned to 440 pounds. (Again, a Hollywood producer would surely find the humor in that). A friend convinced him to eat healthier, so he lost 144 pounds in 40 weeks.
He eventually met Diane, his second and current wife, who stepped up to manage their home and raise their daughter during his frequent absences.
The Patty Hearst story is true. The newspaper heiress was on the run in the 1970s, and either belonged to a subversive group, or was working undercover for the FBI, depending upon whom you believe. Either way, when he arrested her for a minor violation, President Gerald Ford himself phoned the sheriff and firmly instructed him to let her go.
During McConnell’s twenty-year stint as Chattooga County sheriff, his family was threatened, his cattle were shot, and he busted plenty of moonshine stills.
He traveled all over the nation arresting and transporting some shady characters. He didn’t have much help, so these trips were quick turnarounds. He made a 1600-mile roundtrip to bring home a crook named Bubba. He drove to Texas, took a quick nap, and was back in Summerville a mere 26 hours later. At the sentencing, Bubba told the judge, “Whatever you do to me can’t be as bad as riding with this man!”
More recently, McConnell was the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA). He inherited an agency with communications equipment inferior to the Chattooga County Sheriff’s Office, so modernization was his top priority.
He was tested early and often. Statewide flooding from Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994 devastated fifty-five counties. As was often said at the time, “Not even General Sherman did this much damage.” Along with then-Governor Zell Miller, McConnell was away from home for two months, visiting one disaster scene after another.
He realized that ten-thousand porta-potties were needed immediately, and he could only find them in California. The porta-potty people told him it would take weeks for them to deliver. McConnell got the governor to buy some tractor-trailer trucks in California, and then fly GEMA employees out west to pick up the trucks and bring home the porta-potties. Like he said, it’s all about the people, and some things can’t wait.
He also directed the cleanup of the Walker County (Noble) crematory crisis, oversaw the security for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and investigated bombings and terrorism. It’s certainly a life story worthy of a movie, but until then, at least we have a book. You may contact him at email@example.com.