For 37 years, Donnie Haralson fought the bad guys.
Tuesday night he lost his fight against cancer.
The 58-year-old veteran lawman battled the disease for 10 years and died at home, surrounded by family and friends.
“Good God, he fought it,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills. “I’ve never seen anybody fight that hard, that long. You have to admire that tenacity.”
Even through his illness, Haralson kept his sheriff’s radio at his side and often picked up the telephone to talk to colleagues.
“I didn’t know anybody that didn’t like him,” Sills said.
He had what Sills calls law enforcement “magic,” the ability to maintain his popularity after putting a lot of people in prison and being the bearer of bad news for many families.
Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee considered Haralson one of his best friends among Georgia sheriffs.
As new sheriffs 26 years ago, they trained together in Forsyth and cemented a lasting kinship.
“He was excellent,” Massee said. “He was probably as proud to be a peace officer as anyone I’ve met in my career.”
The man who was the longest-serving sheriff of Crisp County began his law enforcement career at the Cordele Police Department.
Haralson followed in the footsteps of his father and joined the force in 1977.
Two years earlier, his 50-year-old father, police officer Willis R. Haralson, was shot and killed along with a Georgia State Patrol trooper inside Cordele police headquarters after a traffic stop in 1975.
The younger Haralson would spend 11 years as a police officer. He rose to the rank of chief before being tapped in 1987 by Gov. Joe Frank Harris to serve as sheriff.
He was elected the following year.
Haralson lived his whole life in Cordele, but Crisp County could not contain the tall lawman’s leadership. He held a number of executive positions in the Georgia law enforcement community.
He served as president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, which named him the 2010 Georgia Sheriff of the Year.
At the time, the association’s executive director, Terry Norris, said this: “He is a man of character and competence, and a proven leader.”
Haralson also served on the board of directors of the Georgia Public Safety Board and was chairman of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.
“Donnie was very focused on making the sheriffs’ association the best in the country,” Massee said.
Haralson also served as Crisp County’s Emergency Management director and was recognized for leading his community through the Great Flood of 1994 with no loss of life and only minor injuries.
In his decade long battle with renal cancer, he traveled the country experimenting with different treatment options.
The banner atop the sheriff’s office Facebook page reads “prayers for Crisp 1.”
In January 2013, Haralson told the Cordele Dispatch newspaper that law enforcement was in his blood.
“I love it and love serving the people,” he told the paper. “I’m humbled by the fact I’ve been able to do so and that they, in return, have elected me sheriff seven times.”
His funeral will be 4 p.m. Friday at Cordele First Baptist Church. There will be no formal visitation, but people may pay their respects from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at the church.
Memorial contributions can be made online at www.georgiasheriffsyouth.org or mailed to the Memorial/Tribute Fund, Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, Georgia Sheriffs’ Youth Homes, P.O. Box 1000, Stockbridge, GA, 30281-8000.
Massee said he had the opportunity to laugh and reminisce with Haralson during his last months in hospice care, and he grieves the loss of his friend as a mentor for others.
“Many new sheriffs and law enforcement officers have not had the opportunity to meet him,” he said. “He was a class act.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.