Elected during Nixon era, Georgia sheriff, 91, to hang up badge after epic career

Cullen Talton, Houston County’s sheriff for more than half a century, will retire at year’s end.
Houston County Sheriff Henry Cullen Talton Jr., the longest-serving sheriff in the nation who took office during Richard Nixon’s second term, says he'll hang up his badge and gun at the end of 2024, closing the book on a 52-year career in law enforcement in Warner Robins, Ga. “I didn’t know I would be here this long," he said. "I guess when you get to be 91, it’s time to do something else.”   Staff photo by Natrice Miller/ AJC

Houston County Sheriff Henry Cullen Talton Jr., the longest-serving sheriff in the nation who took office during Richard Nixon’s second term, says he'll hang up his badge and gun at the end of 2024, closing the book on a 52-year career in law enforcement in Warner Robins, Ga. “I didn’t know I would be here this long," he said. "I guess when you get to be 91, it’s time to do something else.” Staff photo by Natrice Miller/ AJC

WARNER ROBINS — He rarely wore a uniform or toted a gun. Long ago, he adopted a lawman-as-CEO philosophy, showcasing those who worked for him, letting the spotlight shine on any badge but his.

Yet Henry Cullen Talton Jr. became the longest-serving sheriff in Georgia, the nation, and, in all likelihood, American history.

His tenure in Houston County spans the terms of 10 U.S. presidents. He took office 20 days before Richard Nixon’s second term began, six months before Secretariat thundered to horse racing’s Triple Crown and 462 days before Hank Aaron slugged No. 715.

“I didn’t know I would be here this long,” he says. “I wish I could stay here another 10 years. But I can’t. My health won’t let me. I guess when you get to be 91, it’s time to do something else.”

Talton, who transformed an old-fashioned, ill-equipped office with no walkie-talkies into a model of efficiency, plans to retire at year’s end.

These days, the sheriff no longer puts in the long hours he once did. But here he is at his desk on an April afternoon in a fleece vest and a ball cap. He uses a walker to get around, but his mind is sharp. He pops in a hearing aid when he wants to listen closely.

As the end of his time in office draws nigh, plenty of folks want him to reminisce about his career.

But he prefers that his deputies speak — for themselves and for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office, which he began modernizing more than half a century ago. Under the prior regime, the story goes, some patrol cars had trailer hitches so the rank and file could hook up boats and go fishing.

A changing county called for a changing department. Talton has been its constant.

“Really haven’t had anybody that wanted to run against us,” he says.

Through 12 re-elections, Talton was opposed just three times.

He was first sworn in Jan. 1, 1973.

Jimmy Carter was governor.

Talton was 40 and had no law enforcement background. He was a dairy farmer who grew peanuts, cotton and corn on 500 acres of his family’s land 5 miles due south of the runway at Robins Air Force Base. One of his neighbors along a rise in the Houston County countryside, just west of the Ocmulgee River, was a young Sonny Perdue, who went on to become governor.

Talton, though, just went on being sheriff.

Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton in a photograph taken shortly after he took office in 1973.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

‘I saw a need’

If anyone in the United States has been a sheriff longer than Talton, any record of it is hard to unearth.

The Georgia Sheriff’s Association confirms that no one in state history has a tenure that eclipses his.

A former sheriff in neighboring Twiggs County was, until his retirement in 1988, in office 48 years, making him the state’s longest-serving sheriff until Talton was reelected in 2020.

A National Sheriff’s Association spokesman says it doesn’t keep tabs on which sheriffs serve longest. But an article on that organization’s website mentions a Virginia sheriff who, according to multiple sources, served during the first half of the 20th century and was believed to be the nation’s most-senior at 51 years in office.

Talton is nearly four months into his 52nd year.

He first ran for sheriff after a stint as a Houston County commissioner because he thought his predecessor’s department needed modernizing. The county was on the come. Housing was booming with a military base in its back yard. Its burgeoning population has, since the time Talton took office, nearly tripled to an estimated 172,000.

“I saw a need,” he recalls. “I went to the sheriff before me and I told him, ‘If you want to stay on as sheriff, you need to hire some professionals.’”

Talton said the sheriff told him if he thought he could do better that he should run. So Talton did. During his campaign, he spoke of bringing the office a “new image” and said he wouldn’t have “cronies” hanging around. He promised a new era of policing. He won every precinct and took 65% of the vote.

By the end of his first term, his office and its staff of maybe three dozen deputies tallied the highest crime-clearance rates in Middle Georgia.

One of the first mentions of his name in print came in 1948. He was 16 years old and a basketball player for Warner Robins High. An opposing player for Perry High liked getting a rise out of him, elbowing Talton. In his senior season, Talton retaliated. “I got a lick in,” he recalls. He and the other player were ejected from what a local newspaper’s dispatch described as a game “enlivened by a fistic engagement.”

A week into his time as sheriff, Talton cracked down on high-stakes poker games that had attracted gamblers from as far as Alabama. Soon after, his deputies destroyed a 12,000-gallon-capacity moonshine still, one of the largest ever discovered in the region. The bust led to federal charges against a former state representative.

Later, Talton was on scene in 1974 after the bodies of a Florida Highway Patrol trooper and another man, both victims of Paul John Knowles, a serial murderer known as the Casanova Killer, were found handcuffed to a tree and shot to death. “The most brutal thing I ever saw,” Talton told reporters at the time.

One of his first hires is now the current chief deputy, William H. “Billy” Rape.

Rape says his boss’s composure, his bedside manner and willingness to entertain the complaints of all comers has been something to behold.

“Sometimes they’ll just go on and on and on and on,” Rape says, “and he’ll just stay in there and listen. Finally, they’ll give out and get up and go. … And when they leave, they’ll feel better.”

Talton shows off an old photograph of himself and his father, Cullen Talton Sr., on the day he became sheriff in 1973.  Staff photo by Natrice Miller/ AJC

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‘Here to help’

For 13 straight terms, Talton has been a steady hand overseeing what is now a 340-person office with about 130 sworn deputies in the state’s 14th-largest county.

“After you find something that ain’t broken for so long, you don’t fix it,” says Talton’s former chief deputy for three-plus decades, Willie Talton, who is no relation.

Willie Talton, one of the sheriff’s original deputies, remembers their first days on the job, how the previous administration left the place in disarray. Patrol cars had been more or less abandoned across the county. There were unserved warrants stacked all over the office. Others were crammed behind the seats of squad cars. From the get-go, the new sheriff’s crew went to work serving the ignored papers.

“That’s when the people knew, ‘Hey, Cullen Talton’s got a grip on this place,’” Willie Talton says. “He was doing the job that he promised he would.”

The sheriff’s old neighbor, Perdue, the former governor and now chancellor of the University System of Georgia, describes him as the consummate lawman.

“A sheriff like Cullen Talton, first of all, is content with his position,” Perdue says. “He’s not looking for attention. He’s not looking to get on the news. He’s just looking to keep the people of Houston County safe and secure. … I think everyone in the county has rewarded that, returning him to office very easily over the years.”

Alan Everidge, the police chief in Perry, Houston’s county seat, was a deputy under Talton for 32 years. He knows well the sheriff’s casual, behind-the-scenes style.

“I’ve seen one picture of him in uniform, and that was soon after he took office,” Everidge says. “He never let us forget that we’re here to help, that there was more to it than putting people in jail.”

Talton, shown in his office, served 13 straight terms as the Houston County sheriff after he was first elected in 1972. Staff photo by Natrice Miller/ AJC

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‘The end of my patrolling’

Talton has a favorite story.

It involves a hot-rod Ford and a freight train.

Small details sometimes change, like how fast the car was going or when it happened. During the tale’s most recent telling, he says it occurred a few weeks after he took office. It was actually toward the end of his first term, in 1976. But time flies like a speeding red Mustang, and this one was doing 90.

Talton pulled it over at a railroad crossing near the air base. The car’s driver halted in the middle of the road, just shy of the tracks. The sheriff didn’t often make traffic stops, but the zooming Ford, a glaring violation, left him no choice. He stepped out of his car, walked up and told the speeder to wheel over to the shoulder, out of the way of traffic. The instant the sheriff issued his instructions, a horn wailed. A train.

“About that time, he takes off,” Talton recalls. “Leaves me standing on the other side of the train.”

Cops caught up with the car a few miles away and it crashed.

“That,” Talton says now, “was probably the end of my patrolling.”

But perhaps it serves as a self-deprecating reminder to Talton, as a boss, and an even more humble leader.

“When an officer gets a case, I don’t bother him,” he says. “I just let him do his job, and I think that’s what a lot of people who worked for me liked.”

His successes, he says, were built on his employees’ successes. That much he wants to make clear.

The sheriff’s parting words? “Don’t give the credit to Cullen.”

Talton, 91, has served longer than any other sheriff in the nation's history. Staff photo by Natrice Miller

Credit: Joe Kovac Jr.

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Credit: Joe Kovac Jr.