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Thomas ends 36-year career at sheriff’s office
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Henry County Sheriff’s Maj. Nelson Thomas (left) and Sheriff Lane Perry share memories and laughs with friends, family and co-workers at a Friday gathering to celebrate Thomas’ retirement. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Henry County Sheriff’s Maj. Nelson Thomas retired Friday from a career that he did not plan, but which he exceeded his own expectations.

“I can’t say enough good things” about Thomas, Sheriff Lane Perry said at a gathering in Thomas’ honor. To Thomas, he said, “I’ve never had a better friend or brother, and I’m going to miss you.”

Thomas, 59, is the “epitome of integrity. ... It’s been an honor to work with him,” Perry added.

Sgt. Chris Lampkins said he and Thomas began working in the sheriff’s office at about the same time — 1976 — and “I don’t know anybody that cared more about this job than Nelson. Everything that was done had to be done right.”

Lt. Eric Hairston was a young boy when he first met Thomas and has looked up to him ever since.

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“Nelson was the reason I wanted to come and work in the sheriff’s office,” Hairston said. He explained that after he got his education, he didn’t even consider joining other law enforcement agencies.

“I wanted to come back home and wear a brown uniform,” Hairston said. Thomas “is a good role model and he helped keep me on the straight and narrow.”

Several other friends, family members and co-workers and others, including Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers, also spoke at the gathering at the sheriff’s office.

Hours before, Thomas sat in his office, surrounded by neatly stacked empty boxes that soon would hold his personal effects. He was not looking forward to the task of filling them.

Among the first items packed would be cherished photos of himself, Perry and Lt. Col. Stave Eanes; Thomas with President Barack Obama when he campaigned in Martinsville for a first term in the White House; and former governors L. Douglas Wilder and Tim Kaine, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last week.

“The opportunity to meet all these people ... That was one of the good things about” his career, Thomas said. He also had the opportunity to tour the State Capitol Building in Richmond and see the General Assembly at work.

And he survived a major scandal in the sheriff’s office.

“That was a sad time and a scary time as well,” Thomas said of the 2006 federal investigation that resulted in the indictments of a number of residents, officers and then-Henry County sheriff H. Frank Cassell.

Thomas was in the majority of officers who were not implicated.

“We all pulled together to overcome it. We all worked together to regain the trust of the community,” he said.

Because of that, and the work that has been done since then by the entire staff “not just Nelson Thomas,” he leaves the office on “extremely good terms and on sound footing,” Thomas said.

Thomas was raised in a single-parent home by his mother, Nannie Ruth Thomas; grandparents, Elder Roosevelt Hairston, a Primitive Baptist preacher, and Nannie Ruth E. Hairston, all now deceased. (His mother was named after his grandmother.) He was 16 when he met his father, Cleveland Columbus Hairston.

A native of Henry County, Thomas grew up on Sunset Drive in Bassett. “I’m a product of Henry County Schools,” he said proudly, and added that he attended Mary Hunter Elementary School and Carver High School.

Married with two young daughters to support, Thomas was working at Bassett-Walker when he was encouraged to apply at the sheriff’s office. That was in 1976, months after C.P. Witt won re-election to the sheriff’s job.

Witt told Samuel Amos, who helped with Witt’s campaign, that if he knew of “anybody who wanted a job, send them over here to talk to me,” Thomas said. Amos relayed that conversation to a friend who was a state trooper, and the trooper encouraged Thomas to apply.

“They must have saw something in me that I didn’t see,” Thomas said.

He was hired on July 7, 1976, to work in corrections, which is the jail side of law enforcement. He was one of a handful of black officers at the time.

“When I first started in corrections, it was challenging and somewhat intimidating,” he said. “Here I am a young man with a wife and two kids to support going into jail (work) for a career.”

Thomas focused on overcoming the challenges, and within two years was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, he said.

From then until his promotion to the administrative division in 2006, Thomas oversaw the county’s jail operations, completed training programs, took classes and networked with others around Virginia to learn how to handle the numerous transitions in policy, technology changes and provisions for inmate care, he said.

Thomas said each of the four sheriffs he served under — Witt, James Rogers, Cassell and Perry — gave him the latitude to pursue educational opportunities and implement the new requirements.

In retirement, there are many things he will miss, Thomas said. But he will take with him a lifetime of memories, including that of being the first black lieutenant, captain and major in the sheriff’s office, he said.

During the transitional period that followed the federal indictments in 2006, “I guess I was considered the interim chief deputy” until that post was permanently filled in 2007 by now-Lt. Col. Steve Eanes, Thomas said.

He also “was blessed to meet the first black governor” (Wilder), the first black president “and I got to grow old with Roscoe (Reynolds) and Ward (Armstrong),” Thomas quipped of local attorneys who also served numerous terms as state senator and delegate, respectively. The three became great friends.

Thomas said he will never forget the friendships and alliances he forged while in law enforcement — a career path that he did not intend to take.

“I never thought I’d want a gun, never thought I’d own a gun,” Thomas said, but many share the credit for that decision, including his family, teachers, mentors, and a higher power.

“I believe God put me here for a reason,” Thomas said. “I give all the glory to him.”

Aside from working with youngsters, Thomas does not know what he will do in retirement. He said he will wait on “God to show me what he wants me to do next.”


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