By Mike Fordham, Guest columnist.
In the early 1980s I was summoned to Headquarters, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), to receive a disciplinary action involving a vehicle accident in which I had been involved. I was at fault. Many of us remember incidents that happened during our careers and recalling this one I can still hear Paul L. Carter, a former GBI Deputy Director for Investigations, telling me, after he administered my disciplinary action, “Fordham, law enforcement has changed and I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
This morning, Saturday, January 22, 2022, I attended the funeral of former Candler County Sheriff Charlie Homer Bell, III in Metter, GA. Upon returning home, I remarked to my wife, that if a funeral can be a good one, this is probably the best I’ve ever attended. As described by the pastor and those that spoke at Homer’s funeral, he was indeed a legend. Homer practiced law enforcement like he lived his life, with fun, common sense, and a boat load of empathy that many folks didn’t know about. There seemed to be a lot more laughter at the stories told than there were tears.
One of his daughters, Belinda (Bell Tiller), spoke of growing up with Homer as a father. Seemingly he could be as tough at home sometimes as he was as Sheriff of Candler County. Another spoke of first meeting Homer during a traffic stop when she was “drag racing” through Candler County soon after Homer had first been elected Sheriff in 1981 and of her family’s lifetime friendship with the Bell family. An attorney reminisced about learning the practice of law in the “real world”, away from law school, at the tutorage of Sheriff Bell. All referenced him as a legend.
It seemed that most everyone in attendance, especially those who had personally known Homer, identified with some aspect of these remembrances. Homer touched and influenced a lot of lives.
In 1983 I had only been a GBI agent for six months shy of four years. In those days agents had a lot of autonomy in working criminal investigations and we, like most people do, tended to spend our time in jurisdictions where we were treated well and there was a lot of activity. Working undercover narcotics and drug smuggling cases was a challenging assignment and not all Sheriff’s or Chiefs of Police welcomed our activities or our appearance. Some considered a “narc” one notch above that of a real outlaw.
Tom Davis, another retired GBI agent, and I “took to” hanging around where we were always welcome and one of those places was with Sheriff Bell in Candler County. In addition to being glad to have us working in and around Candler County, Sheriff Bell was ALWAYS with us.
Born in 1934, Homer was approaching fifty years of age when we began working with him. Tom and I were less than half his age at the time, but Homer could work me in the dirt. There were many nights we would remain on surveillance, waiting on a load of narcotics to transit Candler County, until the sun would rise. After going home for a shower and a change of clothes, Homer would soon be back at his office which was then in the Candler County Courthouse. I would be looking for a place to sleep. But, after several months of this, although not every day, I learned the source of Sheriff Bell’s stamina.
Whether by chance or having been deemed worthy, Homer invited me to his home for “lunch”. Growing up on a farm in rural middle Georgia there was no “lunch”. My grandmother prepared three meals a day, breakfast, dinner, and supper. Supper could be leftovers from dinner or a piece of cornbread and some buttermilk but there was no “lunch”. I found dinner at the Bell residence to be like a Sunday dinner, every time I was invited.
The visit would begin with Homer refuging in his recliner after turning on the console television to the CBS soap opera, “The Young and the Restless”. For those of you who may not have known Sheriff Bell, he was every bit of six foot four inches tall, weighed well over 250 pounds and was “tough as a lighter’d knot”.
His cursing is infamous, and he loved chewing tobacco.
In 1983 he was much of a man. Surprised at Homer Bell watching and knowing all there was to know about “The Young and the Restless” was somewhat of a surprise to the young GBI agent full of p*** and vinegar. But being appreciative to my host, I too feigned an interested in the soap opera.
Some of the console television sets available during that period would swivel on their base. Strategically positioned between the living room and dining room, Homer would swivel the set to an angle where he could watch the show when dinner was ready. Afterwards, the TV would be turned back towards the recliner where Homer would soon begin to snore. At first, I would simply wait until Homer built his stamina back up; after feeling more comfortable after several visits, I too would build my endurance by taking a nap on the couch until the Sheriff was ready to go. Stories were told at Homer’s funeral of many who dined at his residence; other law enforcement personnel, friends, even inmates being transferred to another jail or just someone who needed a meal.
A definition of legend is “an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field”.
Homer could make me laugh until I cried. He was fearless, tough, smart, and one of the most hospitable people I have ever met.
From 1983 until 1987 and later from 1999 - 2002 I had the high privilege and distinct honor of working with Homer in his best efforts to curb illegal narcotics in Candler County and southeast Georgia. Many can, and will, tell much more intimate and personal stories of him than I. Certainly his friends and colleagues in Candler County and the Middle Judicial Circuit of Georgia knew him better and saw more of him than me.
Homer was never politically correct; if he even knew what that meant.
He was “rough around the edges” as his pastor described but his actions were not always synonymous with his countenance. He gave, a lot, both financially and in person towards taking care of the hungry; those who found themselves in dire straits; and even those who he had personally arrested.
The character Barney Fife of The Andy Griffith Show fame described Andy as “more than a Sheriff” in one of that show’s long running episodes. Barney described Andy as a “friend”; both to him and the community.
Law enforcement has changed, as all things do.
Homer was a friend who never did; I appreciate that, and I will miss him, a lot.
Mike Fordham is a retired GBI agent living in Keller