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Mrs. Tilley named sheriff when husband was drafted

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Conclusion of two-part article

Maurice Tilley had been the Clay County Deputy Sheriff for a year-and-a-half when he decided to run for sheriff. After a successful campaign he and his wife, Ruth, and their baby son, John, moved into the residential section of the jail.

The building had two sections. The jail was a Bedford stone three-story building with detention cells on the first two floors. The third floor was a place where the prisoners could exercise and was also used for storage and to dry laundry during inclement weather.

The residential section was a two-story brick structure with a large wooden porch on the front and was attached to the jail. The sheriff and his family lived on the bottom floor. Deputy Shannon Stewart and his family occupied the second floor.

The old building, located at the corner of Alabama and Jackson streets, was just yards from the railroad tracks that cut through the center of town. The smoke from the coal-fired steam engines that frequently passed by -- mostly troop trains -- made it very difficult for Ruth to keep her home clean while tending to her "job" as the sheriff's wife.

At that time there was no matron so the wife of the sheriff was expected to cook the meals for the prisoners, launder the bed linens and keep records. Ruth did all of this and took care of her family, graciously and without complaint.

"It was just something that had to be done." she said. "You did what you had to do."

Then things changed suddenly for the Tilleys. In November 1943, before he had completed the first full year of his two-year term, Maurice was drafted by the United States Coast Guard.

Before his departure, the Clay County Commissioners appointed Ruth Tilley to be the active sheriff in Maurice's absence at the same salary.

When asked why the deputy wasn't made sheriff, Ruth could only speculate.

"I think it was a nice political gesture from the commissioners. But for whatever reason, I was appointed the Sheriff of Clay County. I continued to do mostly what I had done before," Ruth said. "With their appointment, the Commissioners said that I would attend to the clerical duties connected with the office while the deputy was to do most of the work in the field and in connection with the prisoners."

The county did not provide a car so the sheriff had to use her own.

"We had a green Ford," Ruth said. "Shannon didn't have a car so while Maurice was gone he used our car. If a husband or son was missing in action or killed in the war, a military representative would call and request that the sheriff notify the family. He would always comply. More than one wife or mother got hysterical and nearly fainted if they saw the sheriff's car pull up in front of their house. It was very sad.

"If more was required than Shannon could do," Ruth continued, "we could have called the state or city police. They were always around and very willing to help.

"There weren't as many prisoners then as there are now. Usually there were just four or five in the jail. Most were picked up for being drunk. We didn't have the drugs back then," Ruth said.

One regular prisoner stood out in Ruth's mind.

"He was a pretty good guy, really. But he'd get drunk and maybe steal a car. They always knew where to find the car. He always drove it to Bee Ridge. When he was in jail in the summer he would babysit with John a lot. He was a 'trustee'."

Ruth was not the first woman to hold the title of sheriff in Clay County.

Mae Tipton was appointed sheriff in 1931 when her husband was killed in the line of duty. He stopped a vehicle and while addressing the driver, Sheriff Tipton was hit by another car. Mrs. Tipton held the office for about three months until the end of her husband's term.

Ruth turned the conversation back to her husband. While Maurice had worked at Chrysler he suffered a skull fracture. Headaches bothered him throughout his life.

Maurice was sent to Baltimore for his initial training after he was drafted. One day, when a dull pain turned into a major headache, he tried to get some aspirin. His superior officer questioned Maurice's need for the medication. After he explained about his head injury, X-rays were taken. When the old skull fracture was confirmed, Maurice was given a medical discharge.

Wanting to surprise Ruth, Maurice told some friends he was coming home but asked them not to tell Ruth.

"On Jan. 6, 1944, I'd had plans to go to Terre Haute with two of my friends, Marjorie and Eloise Chadwick," Ruth explained. "They knew Maurice was home but didn't want to spoil his surprise. So when I got to their house they just told me they couldn't go to Terre Haute and I needed to get back to the jail.

"My husband loved this country. He proudly went when he was called and would have served as long as they wanted him. And I didn't mind being the sheriff, but I was very happy on that day in January to return the office to my husband."

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