‘Big John’s’ death hits home

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, November 27, 2019

There was an old adage that journalists are supposedly callous and uncaring and that we don’t feel emotions covering tragedies and death.

Allow me to break that adage on behalf of my colleagues at Greenville Newspapers, LLC, the parent company of The Greenville Advocate, The Luverne Journal and The Lowndes Signal and myself.

As I drove back from Hayneville in the wee hours of the morning Sunday, I tried to process what I’d experienced. I couldn’t do it without tears.

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Sheriff John “Big John” Williams had been gunned down in the parking lot of a local gas station. It was a senseless tragedy for his family, for the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, for Lowndes County and Alabama in general and those of us who covered him as journalists.

In more than three decades of newspaper work, I’ve gotten close to many sources of stories, from school superintendents to law enforcement officials. Though I’d only known Big John a short time, his presence and personality made him easy to like. I considered the late sheriff a friend.

His deep voice and powerful handshake were things you can’t forget about Williams. I met him shortly after moving to Alabama earlier this year.

Part of my duties include covering a wide variety of events in Lowndes County for The Lowndes Signal. Williams, it seemed, was always there.

If it were a church supper in Hayneville, Williams would be handing out handshakes and hugs.

Likewise, whether it was a football game at his alma mater, Calhoun, Central or Lowndes Academy, Williams was there. County Commission meetings? Williams was there each time.

On Saturday morning, I attended an emergency meeting of the Lowndes County Commission. As I walked out the door, Williams approached me and shook my hand. “See you Monday night at Commission,” he told me. I told him I’d be there. Sadly, he wasn’t.

When my phone rang Saturday night I was settling in for what I thought would be an early night. The call shocked me. It was GNL Publisher Adam Prestridge asking if I’d heard anything out of Lowndes County. We were both starting to get reports of a shooting. Sadly, those reports were true.

As I raced up Interstate 65, my mind wandered back to the many times Williams and I had spoken this year.

At a Lowndes Academy football game, we spent most of the third quarter talking about life as he devoured some tasty morsels from the concession stand. In between, he got hugs from kids and adults alike.

Williams loved his family and that was very apparent. He asked me about my family and I shared the story of my son and my late wife. He told me he couldn’t imagine that kind of loss. Now, his wife faces the same thing.

Williams also had a great sense of humor.

One night at a county commission meeting in Hayneville, he told me he was charging admission because there was a good crowd on hand. He told me that my $20 admission would get me a good seat. I asked him if food was included. His answer – ‘Yes sir, we’ve got chicken or ribs.” We laughed at each commission meeting after that.

Big John, you’ll be missed. Your larger than life personality impacted me in a short time. Thank you, my friend, for your service and sacrifice.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to wipe a tear from my eye.

Rest well, Big John Williams. Lowndes County, the State of Alabama, and the newspaper guy who covered you for the past few months will miss you.