Funeral is Monday for former Bibb Sheriff Jerry Modena

Jerry Modena left the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office more than two years ago, but it never left him.

Three days before the former sheriff’s death, he was grilling his successor about how early retirements would affect the force.

“He remained committed to the sheriff’s office all the way to the end,” said Sheriff David Davis, who last visited the ailing Modena on Monday.

Modena, who was 73, died about 10 p.m. Wednesday at his home, Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said.

“He apparently died of natural causes,” said Jones, who has known the veteran lawman since the late ‘70s.

“He was firm but fair,” Jones said.

Modena’s funeral will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Mabel White Memorial Baptist Church, with visitation from 3-6 p.m. Sunday, also at the church, located on Bass Road. Burial will follow at Macon Memorial Park Cemetery on Mercer University Drive.

Modena was just 23 years old when he joined the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office in 1964 after serving as an Army paratrooper.

Former Macon Police Chief Mike Burns was a teenager when he first met Modena -- the man in the uniform that helped Burns’ father, a U.S. marshal, transfer federal prisoners.

Burns and Modena both rose through the ranks to run their departments.

“Through my career and his career, we’d bump into each other all the time,” Burns said. “He was a professional. When it came to law enforcement, he knew what he was doing.”

When Burns was chief, he found Modena very easy to work with as sheriff.

“We had the type of relationship that both of knew we could call on each other at any time,” he said.

From the time John Cary Bittick joined the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in 1972, Modena was one of a group of Bibb deputies Bittick was close to.

In 2001 when Bittick was named president of the National Sheriff’s Association, Modena and his wife traveled to Fort Lauderdale for the ceremony and were among the first people to congratulate him.

“That was Jerry,” Bittick said. “He liked to see you do good. That was just his personality.”

Modena served a total of more than 40 years when he stepped down in 2012 after three terms as sheriff. “The adrenaline pumps and I like that adrenaline,” Modena said, reflecting on his career in a Telegraph interview more than two years ago.

Modena first retired as a major from the sheriff’s office in 1994 and two years later launched an unsuccessful bid for sheriff against incumbent Robbie Johnson.

Modena ran again in 2000 and won.

“For myself and many others at the sheriff’s office, he was a mentor and helped guide my career,” said Davis, whom Modena supervised for most of Davis’ 36 years on the force.

“He was really committed to the community to work on crime issues in this part of the world he had control over,” Davis said.

Bibb Superior Court Judge Howard Simms recalled working with Modena when Simms was district attorney.

“Jerry believed in the sheriff’s department,” the judge said, “and he believed in the people of Bibb County.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills often talked shop with Modena.

“Jerry was a consummate police officer, always,” Sills said. “He was quick to adopt technology. He was a great sheriff.”

After considering Modena’s many accomplishments, Sills considers preparation to merge the sheriff’s office and police force near the top of the list.

“Jerry did a tremendous job in leading the community through the merger process,” Sills said.

Davis agreed and called his former boss an innovative leader who was instrumental in preparing the department for consolidation.

Modena’s legacy includes creating substations across the county and championing the cause of the mentally ill who were incarcerated at the Bibb County jail.

He reserved 200 beds for those with mental health issues in his newly expanded 966-person lockup that opened in 2007.

Jones, who was deputized decades ago while an EMT to help take inmates to Central State Hospital, remembers when Modena was the SWAT Team commander and talked by phone to a gunman threatening to shoot any deputy who stepped foot on his property.

“We don’t want to hurt you, and I don’t want to hurt you,” Jones remembers Modena saying. “The guy threw his rifles out on the front porch, and that was the end of the standoff.”

Modena once said the most difficult part of his job was the funerals.

In 2006, Modena lost Sgt. Joseph Whitehead in a shootout during a drug raid. He also buried others killed in accidents or while serving in the military.

“One of the hardest duties that I’ve had, one of the things that’s probably worked me over more than anything else is the funerals,” Modena said.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.