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Marion sheriff has overcome adversity

by James Fisher

REGIONAL WRITER

FAIRMONT -- Ask Marion County Sheriff Ron Watkins how many days he has left in office and he responds quickly.

Almost to the hour, Watkins knows how long he has left as sheriff, but it's not because he's looking forward to leaving office.

If state law allowed a sheriff to serve more than two consecutive terms, and the voters wanted him back, he would probably remain in office as long as he could.

"When it comes down to leaving this department, I'm going to need two cases of tissues," Watkins said.

"This is my whole life. Come Jan. 1, I'm not sure what I'll be doing, but it will be as a civilian."

That will indeed be strange for Watkins.

Since 1975, law enforcement has been his life.

And almost his death.

Faith put to the test

A Green Beret during the Vietnam War, Ron Watkins had seen his share of death long before his 21st birthday.

Watkins was wounded twice, and survived a grueling five-day test of endurance and faith after a helicopter he was riding in was shot down. The crash killed the pilot and co-pilot instantly, and sent Watkins and another man on the run.

He credits his strong faith for not only saving his life, but for changing his fellow soldiers.

Watkins said the man was an avid reader and an atheist. After being shot down, the soldier complained about not having anything to read, so Watkins gave him the only reading material he had -- a small New Testament he had received nearly 20 years before.

"He read that Bible and something in him changed," Watkins said. "He later became a chaplain and after he got out of the military he became a minister. After that day, I never ask why. It's like the world opened up to me and I never second-guess life."

Marching to a different beat

After returning home, Watkins met a man who would again change his life. Bob Hall, then a state fire marshal, was a teacher, mentor and later a good friend. The connection was immediate -- both men had served in Vietnam, Watkins as a Green Beret and Hall as a civilian attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence, both men had been wounded and both had been shot down in helicopters.

Watkins and Hall use the same word when describing the other -- hero.

"This guy is a throwback," Hall said. "He's a man who marches to his own drummer, but never compromises his standards. You will find people who will down him in nearly every regard, but I know of no finer, more moral law enforcement officer and man than Ron Watkins."

It's hard to find someone in Marion County who doesn't at least know Ron Watkins' name. While some residents have definite opinions about his career, some are just sorry to see him go.

"He was definitely good for the county," said Jamie Morrison. "I never personally met him, but it seems like every time something happens, he's on TV talking about how they arrested the guy."

Put to the Test, Again

Watkins' faith and personal determination were put to the extreme test April 26, 1989, a day when his life literally blew up.

Watkins was caught up in an explosion intended for another officer, Hall said. A man who had had a run-in with a municipal officer, ironically also named Watkins, had loaded the car with a very powerful explosive. Ron Watkins responded to the scene and his life changed forever.

The blast tore apart the car, and Watkins with it. Emergency crews and doctors didn't expect him to survive.

Watkins is very matter-of-fact when describing his injuries and the long winding road to recovery, which he continues to travel every day. While the past 11 years have not softened the memories or the pain, Watkins shed his bitterness years ago and now strives to continue to find the good amongst the bad.

"One of the hardest things that a police officer ever has to do is tell someone that a loved one is dead," he said. "There's no easy way to do it. Unless you've been a victim, you don't know what it feels like. That's why I think victims need to share their stories, to let others know that they're not alone."

Watkins' determination to not only live, but to continue to lead a productive life, after the explosion left him deaf, partially blind and crippled, is impressive.

His wife, Karen Watkins, said the trials and tribulations of running for sheriff, a task that would test a completely healthy person, may have actually helped Watkins in his recovery.

She said many people expected him to fail, but that just made him more determined.

Every victim goes through a process, periods of pity, anger and regret. But concentrating on the sheriff's race took so much of his time that he never felt sorry for himself, she said.

"He wanted to work," she said. "He always loved his work so much, that he couldn't bear to be away. There was no telling him that he could run the department from behind a desk. He was determined to work the road with his men."

After the election, another setback threatened to end his law enforcement comeback before it actually got started. Watkins was coughing up blood because of what Hall calls blast lung effect. Once again, Watkins was told he was dying.

This time, it was on the eve of his swearing in ceremony. Marion County Circuit Judge Fred Fox received special permission and swore in Watkins as he was on a gurney being wheeled into the operating room.

Fairmont Mayor and veteran politician Nick Fantasia understands better than most how impressive Watkins' 1992 victory was.

"It was a very daunting task he undertook. I think the fact that he was successful, not just once but twice, shows his determination," Fantasia said. "Then for the second election, throw in the fact that he was running a department at the same time, it's nothing short of incredible.

"I could walk away from my company, but he's got a pager and a gun that goes everywhere with him," he said.

The making of the man

There's little doubt Watkins' life has been shaped by his trials and tribulations. He is a passionate man who doesn't pull any punches. He is honest, straight-forward, with a moral compass that seems to point at true north. He is also proud -- of his career, his relationship with God, his family and his department.

"The first thing I do every day when I get out of bed, whether it's to go out on a call at four in the morning or to come into the office, is get down on my knees and ask, 'God, who are we helping today?'," he said.

Watkins believes that everything that happens, whether good or bad, serves a purpose in God's plan. He said the trick is finding the good when something bad does happen.

Recently, Watkins was able to put behind him one of the most difficult blows to his professional reputation. After spending a year defending himself and a former community service supervisor from allegations that they assaulted and battered a former county inmate, the woman dropped her federal lawsuit.

Even after all the moments of personal setbacks, this lawsuit was one of the most difficult times for Watkins and his family, Karen Watkins said.

"That absolutely crushed him," she said. "To think that a man of the community, someone who's always done things by the book, would have to go through that, it just hurt him very much."

Speaking his mind

Watkins' career was profiled a few years ago on the Canadian television program "Top Cops." The exposure from the show led to speaking requests from all over the country.

While he was forced to turn down most of the offers to speak, Watkins has been very involved with a police self support group and even spoke at the National Police Memorial in 1991.

"The 'Top Cops' segment really opened doors for me to be able to help people," he said. "But what do you do when you're speaking to 15,000 people, it's a beautiful 90 degree day and then a gust of wind comes along and takes your notes away?

"I froze up and then I just started speaking from the heart," he said. "Now I don't even write anything down. I just say what I feel. It's gratifying after speaking somewhere to have someone come up and say they thought they were the only ones who had ever gone through something. Helping others get through their times of pain is what this is all about."

Watkins is unsure about his future plans, although he said he would like to return to the speaking circuit. His first priority, however, is to continue the healing process.

Watkins fully intends to work right up to the very last possible moment. He has always patrolled on New Year's Eve, he said, and that's how he wants to end his shining career.

"I'll work right up to midnight," he said. "Then I'll call my wife to have her come pick me up and I'll walk out the door as a civilian."

Regional writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com.

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