‘Like a family member’
On a rainy Saturday afternoon a couple of years back, Gilmer Sheriff Stacy Nicholson turned off Maddox Drive bound for an East Ellijay gun range when he saw a man dressed as what he thought was a cowboy.
As he got closer, the sheriff realized it was off-duty deputy Lee Charles holding a sign pointing passersby to the gun range while dressed as Indiana Jones.
“They weren’t paying him for that. Lee just liked to hang out there. I was over there one day and he was behind the counter helping out, just doing it for fun,” said Nicholson of Charles, who passed away at age 64 Sunday, Aug. 21, after a long battle with cancer.
‘One of the most
Anyone who’s passed through the front entrance of the county courthouse more than a couple of times should remember Charles from working behind the first floor control center.
When phase one of the new facility opened in 2007 with a metal detector and security scanner in place, Nicholson thought Charles, at that time a work detail deputy, would be a good fit for the job.
“We knew Gilmer County residents were not going to be used to coming through a security check, so I needed someone who could make them feel better or at least OK about it,” Nicholson remembered.
Charles’ ever-present wit and comfort with strangers often made courthouse visitors forget their uneasiness with the screening procedure, Nicholson said.
Even when it didn’t, Charles kept his cool.
“With his personality, Lee was perfect for that job,” Nicholson said of the broad-shouldered, mustached deputy.
“I’ve seen folks just get irate at having to show that they didn’t have a weapon, but Lee didn’t let it get to him. He never addressed them without a smile on his face.”
That was in keeping with the professionalism Charles displayed during 16 years with the sheriff’s department.
“He was always very thorough. As far as we know, he never missed a thing (on the scanner),” said Nicholson. “One time, he caught what’s called a credit card knife. It’s about the thickness of a credit card, but you do a few folds and it has a three-inch blade that folds out. Lee had the forethought to look at it, get the name and do some research. He even made up training pamphlets to let (his coworkers) know about it.”
Deputy Ben Johnson remembered how, months ahead of Christmas one year, Charles started giving him puzzling previews of a forthcoming gift.
“The first Christmas I (was working here), he said to me ‘We’re going to have to start you a herd,”’ Johnson said. “I knew he had a quirky personality, but then he told me I was going to get some reindeer poop for Christmas. That was September and he just let it go on till December.”
Turns out, Charles made reindeer for his coworkers using clothespins and other craft fare. The cute ornaments came with a bonus.
“He gave a little bag of Hershey’s chocolate to go with it, which was what he was talking about all that time,” laughed Johnson.
“It really touched me that he would take the time to do something like that. He loved doing it, and he also loved picking on me about it for all those months till Christmas rolled around. He was one of the most caring individuals I’ve ever met. He loved what he did and he cared about the people who came through the courthouse.”
Naomi Carmelo Hernandez said Charles was “like a dad or uncle” to her during the 10 years she worked in the courthouse housekeeping and maintenance department.
“He really was like a family member to me,” said Hernandez.
“My car broke down (several times). He could’ve just went on home, but he took the time to stay and work on it. He was always looking out for people’s best interest.”
Charles had suffered from prostate cancer several years ago, but was eventually able to return to work, Nicholson said. However, the disease eventually re-emerged and spread to his bones. For a time, even that did not keep him from doing his job.
“After the (2014) Forsyth County Courthouse shootings, we incorporated rifles as part of our courthouse security. There’s a very specific way you have to carry (the rifles) and you have to be trained,” Nicholson said.
“Lee, being one of the people that would naturally utilize a rifle if needed, wanted to do the 40-hour training. Even with bone cancer, he did all the exercises and never complained. He never missed a beat. That’s the kind of person he was. He never complained about anything.”
After Charles eventually had to step away from his job, people started to notice his absence and miss his good-hearted wisecracks.
“Every day since he’d been gone, someone would come in (the courthouse) and ask ‘Where’s Lee?’ People just loved him. They immediately bonded with him,” Nicholson said.
Hernandez said even when something was bothering him, Charles wasn’t the type of person to “broadcast” his own troubles.
“He would let you cry on his shoulder, but he didn’t talk much about his own problems, I guess, because he didn’t want us to be concerned,” she said.
The Indiana Jones guise came from Charles’ love of sci-fi movies and comic books.
“He would take memory of everyone’s interests and would be able to talk about that topic, whether it was someone who collected guns or movies and Marvel (Comics), Wonder Woman, whatever it may be,” Hernandez said.
Honoring a friend
Several of Charles’ fellow deputies and co-workers gathered at the courthouse Friday, Aug. 19, to present him with his department-issued Glock 9mm handgun framed in a shadowbox display.
“We have a policy that we retire the weapon to a deputy upon their career retirement,” said Nicholson. “Even though Lee had come back to work, we wanted to retire that gun to him and the (officers) wanted to do a presentation. He was in super spirits and sat outside in the lobby about four or five hours and visited with everybody.”
Just two days later, Charles passed away.
“Lee always had that fun character about him,” said Hernandez. “He made it a point to treat strangers like a person, no matter what they were there for. He’d buy boxes of lollipops to give to children of people who came in (the courthouse). He just tried to make life fun.”