Sheriff retires after 28 years

Sheriff David Huffman can still catch criminals -- it just might take him a little longer than it used to.

But that's OK, Huffman said Thursday, because a new sheriff will soon be in town.

Huffman, 65, retires Friday after 28 years as the county's top law enforcement official.

"There comes a time in a person's life when you know it's time to step down," he said. "And this is the time."

Huffman spent time during his final week as sheriff cleaning out his office in the Catawba County Justice Center in Newton and preparing the space for Catawba County Chief Deputy Coy Reid, the sheriff-elect.

"I was cleaning out my safe and found notes I had written on napkins from people approaching me in restaurants and asking me questions," Huffman said.

The napkin notes detail requests for warrant checks and other favors, and Huffman saved the pieces of paper to remind himself to fill the requests.

Those napkins show just how much changed since Huffman took his oath of office in December 1982.

"We've gone from a napkin to some of the most sophisticated investigation tools in the country," Huffman said.

Huffman's family also changed during his time as sheriff, growing from one daughter to four in the last 28 years. He and his wife, Diane, also have nine grandchildren.

Retirement, however, is only a word, not a lifestyle, for Huffman. He plans to "take it easy" during the holidays, but after a few weeks' rest, he'll start work again.

Huffman said he is collaborating with several universities to advise them about campus security measures.

Huffman's father lived to be 103 years old, and Huffman said it's hard work and dedication that keeps him, like his father, going strong.

Even when Huffman isn't going strong, his secretary Faye Hedrick said he continues coming to work.

"He walks in (sick), and we try to run him out," Hedrick said, recalling when Huffman came into work about a month ago with pneumonia. "His color was gone. He was gray."

Huffman had a collapsed right lung from his illness. He said the pneumonia left him weak and made breathing difficult, but he never expected to have a collapsed lung.

"Even the deputies were going to put him in the car and make him leave," Hedrick said. "He just can't stop going."

Although Huffman's office is almost bare, the retiring sheriff left a few words of wisdom for the incoming sheriff.

Posted on a cork board by the new sheriff's desk is a piece of paper that reads, "Nothing can be politically right if it's morally wrong."

Huffman said he tried to govern the sheriff's office by this maxim, and he advised Reid to do the same.

"As long as you do something morally right, you'll be OK," Reid said. "The Lord is going to look after you."

Reid's parents and Huffman's parents knew each other when the men were children, and they have remained lifelong friends.

Reid started with the sheriff's office in 1977 five years before Huffman became sheriff.

"He's influenced me for more than 40 years," Reid said.

Reid recalled how he watched Huffman work long hours on duty. When Reid worked late cases in the detective division, he would hear Huffman and other staff members on the police radio at all hours of the night.

"I never knew if they went home at all or if they just worked all night," Reid said.

Over the years, Huffman said he averaged 14-hour work days. He said he relies on the support of the sheriff's office staff every day.

"There's rarely a decision made that at least two people haven't discussed it," Huffman said.

His decision to step down as sheriff was also a decision he made with the support of others. Huffman said he consulted Reid about two years ago when he considered not seeking re-election.

"It's been a really smooth transition of power," Huffman said. "(Reid's victory) speaks well, not only of him, but of the county, because they say we're satisfied with what we've seen for the last 28 years."

One case that will always stand out in Huffman's memory is the quadruple murder that occurred in the county in March 2009.

"I've never seen officers get in such an emotional state like they were for that case," Huffman said. "They get frustrated when they can't put stuff together."

Although the case was solved, Huffman said the magnitude and impact of the family's deaths will always stay with him.

When Huffman walks out of his office Friday for the final time, he'll have no regrets.

"We've had a few bumps in the road, just like anyone else," Huffman said, "but as a whole, I don't regret anything."

Reid will be sworn in as sheriff Monday at the Catawba County Board of Commissioners meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. at the 1924 Courthouse in downtown Newton. Also at the meeting, commissioners will consider declaring Huffman's badge and service weapon surplus and presenting those items to Huffman.