Modena lauded as leader, innovator and mentor

With a grin nearly as wide as the brim of his old captain’s hat, former Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena was remembered Monday as having an unlikely mix of tenacity and tenderness.

“He recognized the need to treat people with respect and compassion,” Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert told hundreds of people gathered Monday for Modena’s funeral at Mabel White Memorial Baptist Church. “Sheriff Modena did not die in the line of duty, but he gave his life in service.”

The ailing, three-term sheriff died of congestive heart failure at his home Wednesday night at the age of 73.

“The spirit was willing, but the heart was not so mighty,” said Modena’s daughter, Melanie Wilder.

Through his law enforcement career that spanned more than 42 years, he never feared dying in the line of duty, she said.

“He knew heaven was waiting,” Wilder said. “He accepted his time was running out, even if we didn’t. He was at peace.”

Modena’s successor, Sheriff David Davis, remarked that “God has sworn in a new deputy in Heaven County.”

Davis credited Modena with teaching him how to lead the sheriff’s office.

“Most importantly, he taught me how to be responsive and available to the people,” Davis said.

Deputies from as far away as Stephens County in north Georgia came to pay respects.

For Washington County Sheriff Thomas Smith, Modena was his go-to man after Smith was elected in 1996.

“He was always helpful and always returned my calls,” Smith said. “A small country sheriff doesn’t expect a big city sheriff to call him back.”

Many of the lawmen in attendance have similar stories.

Veteran homicide investigator Capt. Jimmy Barbee remembers Modena, then a captain, backing him up on Macon police calls.

“He just worked hard at making things better for everybody, especially the deputies,” Barbee said. “He was my buddy.”

Chaplain Len Woodard remembers how Modena loved to debate, sitting behind huge piles of paper that towered up from the sheriff’s desk.

What impressed Woodard more was Modena’s quiet but strong spiritual side that enabled him to treat everyone fairly.

“Whether you were friend or whether you were foe, Jerry Modena loved you, and he spoke highly of you,” Woodard said.

Woodard told mourners of a wild ride a young Jimmy Allen got on the way to his first traffic fatality with Modena, his first partner in 1971.

Modena was running about 110 mph to get to Sardis Church Road in the

old patrol car with a 454 engine.

Allen would later ride shotgun as the sheriff’s chief deputy.

“That man just did not take a break for nothing,” Allen said before

the service. “He always had something on his agenda. If not, he’d go find something.”

The Rev. Walter Glover remarked that his longtime friend was a mountain among men, a man of valor and unconditional generosity.

“We salute him for being a man of high ethical and moral values and high Christian ideals,” Glover said.

The Rev. Rex Odum said Modena’s abundant affection qualified him for the job.

“He loved his dogs. He loved people,” Odum said. “You can’t be a good sheriff and not love people.”

The former U.S. Army paratrooper was laid out in a flag-draped coffin.

“He was a great soldier,” former Macon Mayor David Carter said. “He was always a good, fair, honest police officer. He worked his way up the ranks and I appreciate that most of all.”

Modena was an innovator, a motivator and a mentor, Davis said.

He formed the sheriff’s office’s first SWAT team and led the area’s Homeland Security Task Force, as well as expanded the jail and enhanced care for mentally ill inmates.

In tribute of his service, some members of the sheriff’s honor guard wore vintage pre-consolidation uniforms from Modena’s tenure.

Although he dedicated his life to serving Bibb County, his impact stretched to the state borders, said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association that named Modena as Sheriff of the Year in 2012.

“He was just so approachable,” Norris said. “He was a seasoned professional who had all the experience anyone could ask for. I just can’t say enough great things about Jerry Modena.”

As the funeral procession wound its way to Macon Memorial Park Cemetery, clouds began to obscure an otherwise sunny morning.

A lone bagpiper played while deputies carried Modena’s casket from the hearse to the burial tent.

About a hundred former co-workers, relatives and friends gathered in prayer as nearby showers held off.

Honor guard members removed the American flag from the casket and folded it in military fashion.

Davis knelt in front of Modena’s widow, Mary Kathryn, before embracing her.

In his earlier remarks at the church, Davis said Modena was a “very important part of our family,” as the current sheriff pledged to continue supporting the loved ones he left behind.

“Be assured we stand ready to assist you.”

Writer Amy Leigh Womack contributed to this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.