Retired Perry public safety director reflects on life’s work

PERRY -- A training stint at the FBI National Academy captured the mind of George Potter and solidified an earlier decision to abandon an ambition to become a lawyer.

A business trip by his wife more than 15 years ago to Perry while he was working for the Columbus police department led to his dream job of serving as a police chief.

Those twists and turns of life, the 63-year-old Potter says, happen for a reason.

That includes his nearly 11-year battle with cancer. Potter retired from his job as Perry’s public safety director June 15 because of his health. He served in the position for six years and was police chief for 10 years before that.

“All things happen for a reason,” he said recently from the office he’s called his own for 16 years. “It’s our responsibility to find out what that reason is.”

He said he’s learned a lot from cancer -- including how to be more kind and compassionate.

But Potter is not giving up the fight. He’s just not able to give the job what he believes it demands. He’s not known for doing things halfway.

And he now has a granddaughter, Lilly, who turns 1 in June, whom he wants to spend more time with.

“I’m not a quitter. I believe in fighting these things,” said Potter, who has a 42-year career in law enforcement under his belt. “My wife has been there for me every step of the way, and I would not have made it this far without her love and support.”

He and his wife, Connie, will celebrate 24 years of marriage come August. He met her when she was a manager for a book store chain and he was supervising security cops at a mall in Columbus. The couple have one child, Erica Potter.

Some people might have given in battling cancer. But Potter said all the chemotherapy and hospital stints have been well worth it.

“I’ve got a granddaughter I wouldn’t have (known) had it not been for surviving,” Potter said. “And a lot friends. They cheered me up and helped me keep going.”

Potter said he couldn’t fight cancer without his faith in God.

His advice to those also battling cancer, especially those who may have been recently diagnosed, is to find out all the information possible and to have an advocate to watch over you.

“Listen to your wife,” he said.

Of his life’s work, Potter is most proud of the people he’s invested in through the years in his roles in law enforcement and as adjunct professor of criminal justice at Fort Valley State University. He previously taught at Troy State University and at Columbus State University.

He also had the opportunity to travel overseas through a U.S. State Department program in 1994 and help train the Somali National Police.

A mentor

Potter’s colleagues say he’s invested in them. Perry police Capt. Bill Phelps, whom council designated on an interim basis to handle some administrative functions of the police department with Potter’s retirement, and Capt. Heath Dykes, who heads the criminal investigations division, both characterized Potter as a mentor.

“Chief Potter really means a lot to me as far as mentoring me over the last 16 years,” said Phelps, who served as acting chief before Potter was hired as police chief in March 1996. “He’s the type of person who allows you to grow and allows you to make decisions.”

Phelps said Potter knows how to treat people.

“He doesn’t look at the outer appearance of a person but looks at the inner appearance of person,” said Phelps. “He treats all people with dignity and respect.”

Dykes, who was a detective with the rank of sergeant when Potter was named police chief, described Potter as a “tremendous asset to the department.”

“He’s very innovative and kept us on the cutting edge of the greatest and newest thing in law enforcement,” said Dykes. “He was always big on training, education and equipment.

“During a lean budget year, he always found a way to find money whether it was grants or innovative ways to save money in the budget,” Dykes said.

He recalled when gas prices first started climbing. It was Potter who did the research and found that V6 engine vehicles would be cheaper to operate and save the city more money than V8 engine vehicles, Dykes said. Potter successfully pushed for Chrysler Intrepids with V6 engines as patrol cars, Dykes said.

The city’s mayor and council recently eliminated the public safety director position over police and fire saying it was no longer needed. The post was created and Potter promoted from police chief to the job in 2006 in part to handle problems within the fire department.

Potter selected Joel Gray six years ago to come to Perry from Florida to assist him in reorganizing the fire division.

“He is a great boss who mentors his subordinates, a leader who clearly identifies his expectations, deals fairly and justly with the issues that he is confronted with, and is an administrator who stands behind his employees and promotes the importance of family,” Gray said of Potter.

Mayor Jimmy Faircloth said he and his wife, Patti, have been friends with the Potters for many years.

“He’s one of the strongest men I know,” said Faircloth. “He has very deep convictions. He stands by what he says. He is a man of his word.

“He believes strongly in family and his job and doing the right thing. I’ve been impressed with his integrity and his tenacity. He sticks with things. He doesn’t look back. He makes a decision and moves forward.”

Before coming to Perry, Potter completed a 26-year law enforcement management career at the Columbus police department. Potter graduated from the FBI National Academy, Session 106, in 1976. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Columbus State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from Troy State University and a master’s degree in public administration from Columbus State University.

The move to Perry came after his wife was on a business trip there for the dental lab company she worked for back in 1996. She had lunch in Perry, read the newspaper and enjoyed the people she met. She also learned about the police chief position. Potter said she wanted him to find out immediately if the post was still open, and it was. He applied, and a subsequent 20-minute interview for police chief turned into 2½ hours, Potter said.

The couple scouted Perry together on subsequent trips before anyone knew who they were, and they fell in love with the city.

Once relocated, his wife opened Mitered Corner, a frame shop on Carroll Street in downtown Perry, which she ran for 15 years. She still does framing from their home in the Perry area, Potter said.

“It will be very difficult for me to let go of the Perry Police Department,” Potter said. “I’m going to miss my employees, the elected officials and the citizens. That’s a lot to miss because those are the things I looked forward to every day.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.