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Get the Point: Singing sheriff an icon to a now old man — me

June 6, 2013

By David Hughes

One of the iconic people in my life is “the singing sheriff,” Joe Lee Richards, but my friendship with him predates his terms in office by many years. Joe Lee was one of the guys who helped usher me into the brotherhood of C.B. radio back in the early ‘60s.
Later, as I was beginning to develop my skills as a news photographer, he would let me ride along with him in his rocket-powered police cruiser and regale me with stories of busting bad guys and making the county’s highways safe.
When Joe was elected sheriff, he always treated me as a professional and helped make my career more exciting and make my mark by calling me – even if it was the middle of the night – to tell me to “get up and get out here, there’s something going on that would make some great photos.”
Back in the day when C.B. radio was young, I quickly found that just because I had one didn’t mean other people would talk to me. It literally was a good old boys club whose members were old – in their 30s-to-50s.
One of the first voices I remember coming out of that speaker of Hallicrafters radio was someone whose favorite saying was “mercy!” But it was the way he said it that was fascinating and miracle of miracles he actually would speak to me on the air. In fact he invited me to come to his house one time and help him and some other fellas put up a new antenna.
That invitation and “eyeball” with other of Joe’s C.B. friends opened the door so others in the group began talking to me. This was really something to a nerdy teenager and I have always been grateful to Joe for that tiny kindness.
I’m sure he has no recollection of that day, but it was my introduction to a kind and fascinating man.
I can truthfully say that knowing Joe Lee in my younger days as a photographer was exciting, and at times death defying (grin).
Back in the ‘60s the Arkansas State Police bought a fleet of specially equipped interceptors for troopers working heavily travelled interstates. Joe was given a car with one of the new Chrysler HEMI engines which looked kinda grayish instead of the standard ASP blue and he loved to work VASCAR with it, but he was a little different. … Yeah, different.
One night is seared into my memory … Joe invited me to ride along in the front seat of his cruiser as he worked traffic on Highway 70 on the way to Hot Springs. Joe worked VASCAR there by setting up the little box which signaled when a car passed me and flashed a light. He would then start a stop watch and when the vehicle reached a certain point another flash would indicated when to stop the watch. This would give him the vehicle’s speed.
Radar was expensive in those days and this worked as well and allowed the officer to hide off the road if he or she wished.
Well, Joe hid down a side road about what seemed a quarter-mile away from 70.
His lair was just past the big hill eastbound headed toward Benton after Spring Lake road.
That hill plays a part in what’s coming.
A speeder whizzes past the VASCAR sensors, Joe clocks them about 70, looks over at me and says “buckle up” and puts that rocket in gear… … … All I hear is a deep-throated VROOOOOOOOOOOOM! And he blasts off up that little road, makes a bat turn to the right and begins his “pursuit” of the speeder.
We reach the hill’s apex in what seems 20 seconds and the car leaves the ground at what must have been 1,000 miles an hour. We were going so fast this HEAVY police car was about to lift off the ground.
Joe got his speeder and nonchalantly walked back to the car and seemed amused that I was in a catatonic state.
I have so many other tales thanks to Joe Lee Richards and I want to thank him for them and for the years he served the county as sheriff.
Joe and I also have a love for country music and the man is a real talent. He sounds a lot like Johnny Cash with a little Willie thrown in for feeling. I also know that one of his favorite things to do is be a part of impromptu picking parties where all anyone has to do is pick up a geetar or just sing along.
Joe’s secret weapon through the years was his wife Lou who passed away in 2000. She was the epitome of Southern womanhood and one of the kindest and most gracious ladies I ever met.
Lately, that role has been filled by his daughter, Kathy Blue who has been at her daddy’s side through his illness and now residence in Saline Memorial’s Hospice House.
She keeps all his friends on Facebook updated on how the sheriff is doing several times a day.
If you have the time NOW is the time to stop by and see Joe to tell him what he means to you and I also ask you pray for a good man.

David Hughes is a former resident of Saline County. His column appears each Thursday in The Saline Courier.

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