WARNER ROBINS -- Cullen Talton tells a funny story about his first traffic stop more than 40 years ago.
Talton -- who was a dairy farmer and former county commissioner, including two terms as chairman -- hadn’t served in law enforcement prior to his election as Houston County sheriff.
The way he recalls it, the motorist was speeding at 75 miles per hour and turned onto Booth Road near Warner Robins. Talton pulled him over before the railroad tracks and started walking toward him to check his driver’s license.
“About that time, I hear a train whistle blow,” Talton said as he started to laugh. “He takes off and leaves me standing there.
“I’m on one side of the tracks. He’s on the other. He’s done got away. But we caught him about 30 minutes later.”
Still laughing, Talton added, “That’s about the funniest thing that happened to me. ... That was the end of my patrolling then.”
Today, the 81-year-old Talton shares the designation of the longest actively serving sheriff in Georgia, according to the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.
Chattahoochee County Sheriff Glynn Cooper also took office Jan. 1, 1973. Both are in the top 10 of the longest actively serving sheriffs in the nation, according to the National Sheriffs’ Association.
When Talton took the reins of the sheriff’s office, there was a steep learning curve not just for him but for his deputies, recalled his second-in-command Chief Deputy Billy Rape.
Rape, who described Talton as a “self-made law enforcement officer,” is one of the original deputies who joined Talton when he took command. Rape previously served as a railroad law enforcement agent.
“He learned very quickly,” Rape said of Talton. “We were all -- I guess I don’t want to use the word skeptical. But the majority of us that came in had some law enforcement experience.
“But I had only had three years. Some of them had a lot more than I had. None of us had had anything to do with the sheriff’s office. We didn’t have a clue ... what a civil paper was or how you bailiffed in a court ... that type of thing,” Rape said.
The sheriff’s office in 1973 was primarily responsible for providing court services and operating what was then a small jail. The entire department consisted of 28 people. Talton kept just three members of the previous administration when he ousted the incumbent, Albert Hudson.
“It was a learning process for us, so we knew it had to be hard for him because he had no experience in law enforcement,” Rape said. “But the sheriff had a knack to pick it up very, very quickly.
“He got out and rode with us. He came to crime scenes, which as the boss, he really didn’t have to. He could have delegated us to do that. But he came, and he learned very quickly. We were very proud of him and still are.”
Already a successful businessman from the dairy farm he and his father started together in 1957, Talton had the experience to manage the department. Seeing himself as an administrator, Talton left the dairy business behind. His son, Neal Talton, now runs the farm.
Cullen Talton campaigned on bringing professionalism to the department, Rape said. Talton expected his deputies to treat others with respect and dignity. He didn’t believe in micro-management and instead hired capable people to do their jobs.
Those principles remain the bedrock of his administration.
Talton is quick to give his employees credit for all that’s been accomplished through the years as the agency has grown to 316 employees with additional divisions such as the 911 system, juvenile investigations and a large jail capable of housing 666 inmates.
“The reason I’m in office this many years is the men and women that work in the sheriff’s department,” Talton said. “I give them all the credit for any success we’ve had.
“I’m just sitting here behind this desk. They are the ones out working, and they’re the ones making the sheriff’s department go. I’m very proud to say that I feel like I have one of the best sheriff’s departments in Georgia. ... And I hope a lot of other people feel the same way.”
Helping others move up
Talton is known among the ranks for providing training opportunities for his deputies and keeping the agency up to date with technological advances. Those in command staff positions today have come up through the ranks.
Rape, whose father, “Pip” Rape, served as a Warner Robins police chief for many years, is the only remaining deputy now on staff who came into the office with Talton.
State Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins, also was among that original team. Willie Talton, no relation to Cullen Talton, served in the sheriff’s office for nearly 30 years, including a few years as the chief investigator but mostly as the sheriff’s chief deputy.
“I enjoyed the years that I worked for him,” said Willie Talton, one of the first black Republicans elected to the Georgia General Assembly since Reconstruction and one of the first two black police officers in Warner Robins. “He opened up a lot of doors for me. He gave me an opportunity to, how you say, to blossom.
“I would often tell him thank you. He’s very modest, and I would tell him thank you because, you know, because somebody has to open the door for you. Regardless of what you can do or whatever talents you possess, if you don’t have a chance to blossom, there’s nothing.”
A father’s influence
A photo of Cullen Talton with his late father, Cullen Talton Sr., who ran a grocery store in Bonaire for 45 years, sits on the sheriff’s desk. He keeps his father’s hat on top of a lampshade as a reminder of him.
“He was real proud, you know, that I got elected sheriff,” Talton said. “He had a big influence on me even running for county commissioner. He served on the Houston County Board of Education for 27 years.
“Most everybody back then knew my daddy. I remember back when I was politicking, I had a lot of folks say, ‘Well, if you’re anything like your daddy, then I’m going to vote for you.’ So he had a big influence on me getting elected, really, because a lot of people knew him.”
He also keeps a photo of his large family in his office as well as one that includes his late mother, Lois Talton.
Talton, who left the Democratic Party later in life and now runs on the Republican ticket, also has photos of himself with former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, both Republicans.
Prominently displayed on his desk is a name plate that reads “SHERRIFF.” It was a gift from a friend, the late John Grantham, who made it for Talton and gave it to him when he first took office.
Talton said he never mentioned the spelling error to his friend.
Talton said two of the lowest moments since he’s been sheriff were when two of his deputies were killed in the line of duty.
“That was really a sad time for the whole department,” he said. “When I get to talking about it, I get a little emotional.”
Jessie Tanner Jr. was shot and killed in 1978 when attempting to serve an arrest warrant. Danny Ray Jr. was killed in 1986 by a jail trusty who got Ray’s pistol from under the seat of a patrol car and shot him to death with it.
‘Never about him’
Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker, who went to high school with Talton’s oldest daughter, first knew him as the intimidating father figure when Stalnaker and other students often congregated at the Talton home.
Later, Talton was one of the five commissioners who hired Stalnaker when he first came on the county payroll as recreation director in the summer of 1972. Stalnaker worked for the county for 38 years, retiring in 2010 as director of operations to run for commission chairman.
“I think his integrity is the highest of any individual that I probably know,” Stalnaker said of Talton. “He believes in treating people the way he wants to be treated, with respect and dignity.
“And I have never seen the sheriff when he was not willing to try to help someone.”
Talton expects his employees to do their best and supports them, and he deals quickly with employee problems when they arise, Stalnaker said.
“Anytime you hear him talk about his department or the success of the department or the services that the sheriff’s department provides, it is always about the employees,” Stalnaker said. “It is never about him.
“I have never heard him say anything other than that. And he truly believes that. That’s not something he’s just saying to try to let people think that. He believes that, and he is sincere when he says that.”
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.