Elry Faulkner, the longest continuously serving sheriff in Johnson County, as well as in the State of Illinois, was honored Saturday, October 25, 2014, by his family, friends, neighbors and fellow law enforcement officers at Vienna High School.
A reception hosted by his family, lasting over four hours, brought several hundred people from one end of the state to the other to show their appreciation to the legendary sheriff. One retired sheriff from Boone County, located on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, travelled over seven hours with his wife to visit with Faulkner at the gathering.
Elry’s daughter Katrina Treat said, “Dad kept telling us that they were over planning for this, ‘People may say they will be there, but don’t show up for these kinds of things.’”
“Dad was surprised by the number of people that attended.” Treat said. “He was very happy and humbled at the end of the day.”
Faulkner’s last official day in office as sheriff will be Sunday, November 30, 2014. He plans to continue serving the post until Honorable Judge James Williamson officially swears in the newly elected sheriff at 8:00 a.m. Monday, December 1.
The following article by Cheryl Thompson appeared in The Vienna Times, as well as other regional newspapers, in March 2010 when Elry broke the record as longest serving sheriff in the state:
The Legacy of the Man:
Sheriff Elry Faulkner
All you have to do is say “Elry” to almost anyone and there’s a very good chance they’ll recognize Sheriff Elry Faulkner’s name. That’s because Elry has been the acting sheriff of Johnson County for the past 36 years. That in itself is quite an accomplishment, as no other Sheriff in the history of the state of Illinois has ever actively served, or been elected to serve, for this length of time.
Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Elry and find out a little bit about what makes our sheriff such a great man and a wonderful role model for, not only other sheriff’s and law enforcement officers, but all of Johnson County too. I hope the following brings a smile to your face, and a little bit of pride in knowing that our Sheriff Faulkner is one of Illinois’ best.
Elry has always wanted to be a police officer, even as a little kid growing up on the farm. He first became interested in police work when he hung around with the officers at the weigh station where his brother worked, and on the weekends, as a teenager, Elry would help him out and chum around with the police officers who were there. But, his start into law enforcement began in a curious way. One day, while beating a tire with the Mayor of Vienna, the late Paul Gage, (that’s when tires were fixed by hand and tools), and Elry witnessed an elderly gentleman on the receiving end of a rough way to go by some youngsters. The Mayor told Elry that these boys were trying to take over the town. Elry, disgusted, looked at Paul and said, “God, I wish I was a policeman!” The Mayor asked him, “Do you think you could handle it?” Without hesitation Elry spouted, “All three of me!” Elry admits he was just running his mouth, but two weeks later Paul Gage came down to the station and told Elry to jump into his car. As they pulled up to City Hall Elry thought he was going to service a car for the City, but when they went into the County Clerks office Paul asked if they had the papers ready. Paul took the paperwork and then told Elry to sign the papers. Of course Elry asked him what they were for and the Mayor said, “This is your oath of office, and your bond to be a City police officer.” “Whoa!” Elry remembers saying, “I don’t know anything about being a police officer.” Gage said “But you said you wished you were a police officer. We had a City Council meeting last night and now you are. Here’s your badge.” At that time, Elry recalls, he had to furnish his own car and that he didn’t even own his own gun. He had to borrow one from his brother. His first night as a city police officer began on Halloween night, 1968. From that moment on Elry was in love with law enforcement.
In those early years Elry worked “his butt off” with three other part time jobs besides the City of Vienna. One of those jobs entailed working for Joe Fairless at the Pontiac garage. He also worked part time for Paul Hunsacker at Mount Funeral Home, and lastly, he worked at the local gas station.
Since taking his oath of office, there haven’t been too many times when Elry thought about hanging up his gun and badge. But, at one point, he did think about quitting. While Mary, his wife, has always supported him, his father had told him “Son, I wish you would quit, you’re going to get hurt.” But, Elry brushed it off and told his father, “Nah dad, I’m a big boy, I can handle it.” One afternoon not long after his father asked him to quit, while he was working at the Pontiac garage, Elry’s dad passed by, honked and waved. Twenty minutes later Paul Hunsacker—owner of Mount Funeral Home, came whipping in and told Elry to jump in, there was a man slumped over the steering wheel in a car just down the road and Paul needed help to load him. When they arrived on the scene, the deceased man turned out to be Elry’s dad. He had died from a heart attack not long after waving to his son. For a brief moment, as Elry thought about his father’s passing, he also thought about honoring his father’s last request. But, as everyone knows, his love for the job was too great; Elry remained.
It is obvious that Elry loves what he does for a living. When asked what he loved about this job, Elry was quick to respond, “Because I get to help people.” When asked in what way, he just smiled and said, “In order to be a good Sheriff, you’ve got to be able to enforce the law, plus be a public relations officer, and be able to switch from law enforcement to public service, to rescuer.” “Just like when we had the big ice storms, sometimes there were two or three days where I didn’t do any police work at all. I took people to their jobs at the nursing homes; provided transportation to the churches where there were warming centers, and I made sure the elderly were taken care of.” “You’ve got to be able to switch gears midstream if need be.”
On the job, Elry just isn’t an “arrest em and send em off to jail” kind of sheriff. His caring attitude and responsibility for the people of Johnson County spills over onto those he arrests. Elry reaches out to those who have the fortune of riding in his patrol car to their incarceration. Sheriff Faulkner has received numerous letters and emails throughout his time as Sheriff from people he doesn’t even remember. One email, from a young man he arrested a good number of years ago, gives thanks to Elry for the “talk” he gave him on the way to prison. “It is because of you,” the email stated, “that my life has been forever changed. I am married now and doing great and it is because of you.” Elry also recently received a phone call from a young man who told him that, although Elry arrested him, he also helped him, and because of that help he is now married, has children and is doing well. “It is those things that make you feel good” Elry said, “and one of the reasons I keep running for sheriff.” Another reason Elry continues to run for office is his own admitted selfishness. When asked to explain, Elry said that when he took over as sheriff there were burglaries and drugs and he, along with deputies Robert Harner and Jim Alsip, ran their tail ends off trying to make this the best county to live in. Elry readily admits he has never been a politician. “My politics” Elry states, “is treating people fairly.” “It does not matter who you are, what your political affiliation is, or where you are from; I treat everyone the same.” “I do not play favorites. I won’t turn anyone loose because of “whose” kid they may be, or how many votes they may have, or how much money they have in the bank.” “I believe in fairness to all.” The selfishness comes in from not wanting the office to go back into the hands of a politician who may sit behind this desk and say, “I’m the chief law enforcement officer” and then not care one iota about the people he or she will serve. “I feel a great responsibility to the people of Johnson County” Elry said, “I haven’t done this [law enforcement] for the past 39 years just because of what ‘Elry’ can do, the people of Johnson County put their trust in me every four years; I try to give it back.” “I don’t want to turn this office over to someone who is going to let it fall backward instead of moving forward.”
Anyone, with a career in law enforcement, can tell you there are a few things that will make you stop and ask yourself if you need to continue in this line of work, like getting shot. But, as the old saying goes, you have to get back up on that horse if you’re ever going to ride again, and that’s just what Elry did back in February of 1979.
Although in 1979 Elry credited himself for being the meanest, toughest sheriff around. Not to say he was puffed up with pride, but his feeling was that no one could hurt him. He believed he was indestructible. But, now, as he looks back on his life, he is quick to point out how God has been with him every step of the way. On Valentines Day in 1979 three prisoners escaped from the Marion Federal Penitentiary. Elry recalls the fog was so thick you couldn’t see very far in front of you, and he and his deputies spent 17 to 18 hours each day, of the next three days, trying to find them. On that Saturday evening Elry came home to shower and change into a clean uniform. “Now here is where God comes in.” Elry states with a voice filled with obvious emotion, “I had been the sheriff for about 5-years at this point, and God knew that I was stubborn and wouldn’t have listened to any of my friends, like Robert and Jim, or my best friend Homer Poole, or even Stan Mathis. Either one of them could have told me I would get hurt that night, but I wouldn’t have listened to them, so God gave me Mary. He knew there was one person on this earth that I would listen to.” The story goes that Mary came into the room where he was almost ready to go back out, and points to the bullet proof vest hanging in the closet and said, “You bought that bullet proof vest about 6 months ago,” and Elry told her, “Well yes.” “Why,” Mary asked and Elry replied, “Well, I might need it someday.” Then Mary proceeded to tell him, “That’s right, and today could be that day, so put it on for me.” At first Elry refused, but at his wife’s “Please”, he took the vest from her hand, took his shirt back off and put the vest on. While he was putting on the vest, the telephone rings. It was the preacher, Tommy Penrod of the Church of God near Cypress calling to ask Elry if he would check the thermostat at the church for him. He explained that he always goes out there on the Saturday before service so the church would be warmed for Sunday morning service, but that particular night something just didn’t feel right for him to go out there. Elry informed Tommy that he would check for him. When Elry left his house, he went to pick up the extra deputy, Kenny Burns, that CETA had provided for him, and then they headed west on 146 toward West Vienna and highway 37. As they passed through West Vienna Elry recalls seeing two men waving at him that turned out to be FBI Agents, Bob Ducker and Larry Davis. They asked him what he was doing and then asked to come along. When they arrived at the church they all got out and the FBI agents go up to the front of the church to find the doors locked tight. Elry goes around to the back to find the outside basement door unlocked, but the door at the bottom of the stairs was locked tight. Elry decides to pick the lock with his pocketknife and check the thermostat anyway so Tommy wouldn’t have to come out at all. As soon as he opened the door, while putting his hand in his pocket to put his knife away, one of the escapee’s steps out and shoots Elry point blank in the chest. Elry goes down. One of the FBI agents saw Elry go down, and while taking cover with Elry’s patrol car, he radio’s to the dispatcher that an ambulance was needed, shots were fired and the Sheriff is down…Mary was listening to the radio at home, as well as, the media tuned in to their scanners. Elry chuckles to himself when he recalls the FBI agents coming down into the basement to find him wrestling with the escapee. “There was blood all over me,” Elry said, “But I had a hold of him and I wasn’t letting go.” The agents kept trying to get Elry to let go of the man, but Elry was determined, telling the agents he was alright. Once the suspect was in handcuffs the agents wanted Elry to sit down, but once he did he discovered the agent had used his radio to call the incident in. One of the first things Elry did was to radio Mary to tell her, “You know that thing you gave me?” “It works.” Jim Stevens, who had also been listening to the radio at his home, ran out of the door in his stocking feet and no jacket, and raced down to the church to make sure Elry was alright. Elry also remembers that little church was swarming with policeman from all over, including Jackson, Union, Pope, Hardin and Pulaski, as well as State Police, and he wondered, “How did they get here so fast?”
It’s normal to have some misgivings and apprehension after an ordeal like that, and Elry had some of his own during his healing process. He wondered if he had the “stuff in his pants” to get back out there and do his job. His concern was more for his deputies, and what would happen to them if he’d become too chicken. Would he get one, or both of them, hurt? Well, as Elry puts it, God was in the mix again because no less than 30 minutes into his first shift back to work he is apprehending a man who had stolen gas from the Short Stop station, then run by Betty Russell. Elry’s collar turned out to be wanted in another state for stealing the car too. As he was calling in that he had the suspect in custody, the realization hit him, “Hey, you didn’t even flinch.” At that point, Elry said he knew this was God’s way of showing him that he was going to be alright.
The hardest thing Elry said he has ever had to do is to go to a parent and to tell them their son or daughter has been in an accident and is not coming home ever again. One Christmas he wrote a “Christmas wish” letter to the young people of Johnson County. His wish was that he would not have to tell their parents that they had died in a drinking and driving related accident. Elry states that if he could have one wish, it would be to never have to tell a parent their child is dead.
Not too long ago, on May 1st, 2007, Elry was in the process of transporting a young man back to prison when he heard there was a high-speed chase on I-57 with a stolen vehicle. Since Elry was heading in the opposite direction, he pulled his squad car over to the median and waited for the approaching vehicles, in case he could be of some service to the officers in pursuit. What happened next Elry really doesn’t remember, but from the State Police reports we know the driver of the stolen vehicle steered his car directly into the median where Elry’s car was parked, and hit him head on. Elry received major injuries while his passenger, Christopher L. Burns, of Metropolis, Illinois received only minor injuries. The story was later related that when the paramedics arrived on scene, they tried to administer first aid to Christopher, but he refused, telling them to “Help Elry” instead. It is said that Christopher would not leave Elry’s side until he knew Elry was going to be taken care of. Then, and only then, did Christopher allow himself to be treated for his injuries. That in itself is another testament to the legacy Elry will leave behind.
Personally, Elry considers this year—2010—to be his best year ever, mainly because he is still alive. Professionally, it was in the late 1980’s, or early 1990’s, when he had the time to work the Interstate and take drugs off the highway. Elry smiled real big as he said, “I just loved taking drugs off the street” “I tried to get as much as I could.” Sheriff Faulkner had taken so much off the interstate that the Director of the DEA sent him a letter of commendation for the amount of drugs he was able to confiscate. Some of the other policemen were worried though that maybe the drug lords from Columbia would try to come after him. Fortunately for Johnson County, that never became a reality.
One of Elry’s hopes is that the example he has shown, throughout the better part of three decades as the sheriff, has, in the long run, helped people. He is a strong believer in not just talking the talk, but in diligently walking the walk. He hopes and prays that he has left a good legacy for the young people under his care.
When Elry took over as sheriff he decided to tackle the politics that had run the office prior to him. When he hired Jim and Robert back in 1974 he told them both, “Guys, this is going to be a four year job, so make sure you’ve got something to fall back on because I’m going to do things here that have never been done before, and the people might not like it.” Well Elry, after 36 years as the sheriff of Johnson County, it’s safe to say, the people must like what you have done for them.
Thank you Elry for the love and dedication you have given to the people of Johnson County. I am one who is eternally grateful for the care and responsibility you have shown this community.