Ohio lawman hangs up gun belt after 48 years

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — Even amid the jumble of details dating to the early days of the Eisenhower presidency, Pickaway County Sheriff Dwight Radcliff hasn't forgotten much.

The still-energetic 80-year-old can rattle off names, cases and other facts with startling recall as he tells tales of a law-enforcement career stretching to 1953.

“Y604L,” Radcliff said, reciting the plate number of the 1957 Chevy driven by a suspect in the first homicide he worked — and solved — after taking office as sheriff in 1965.

As Radcliff prepares to hang up his gun belt after 48 years in the family business, he ranks as the nation's longest-serving sheriff.

He attributes his longevity to passion for his job and always being a straight dealer, whether with the people, his deputies or the prisoners in his jail.

“I know people. If you don't lie to them, they'll take care of you. Treat people how you like to be treated yourself,” Radcliff said from his memorabilia-packed office. “I've always meant what I said and said what I meant. I'm proud of that.”

All in the family

Charles Radcliff, the manager of a dairy co-op, was elected sheriff in 1931, moving into the residence at the jail where his wife, Sadie, served as matron. A year later, their son, Dwight, was born, his destiny seemingly set.

Dwight Radcliff began shooting crime-scene photos for his father as a teenager in the 1940s, and he hired on with his dad as a full-time deputy in 1953. But Charles Radcliff lost a primary race in 1960, sending him to the sidelines and his son to the car lot.

Despite his protests, Radcliff said, a couple of supporters dragged him to the board of elections in 1964 and “made” him run for sheriff as a Democrat. Radcliff won election, the first of what would be a dozen such wins.

Radcliff came to know his county, and its people, as no one else did. He knew everyone, it seemed. He could tell you where they lived and what they did for a living — illegally or otherwise.

When detectives couldn't get anywhere questioning a suspect, they would call in the boss, said Lt. John Monce. “Dwight can get stuff out of people because he knows their dad, their mom, their relatives. They'll talk to him.”

Radcliff's son, Robert, likewise grew up at the county jail where Betty, Dwight's high-school sweetheart and bride of 59 years, served as jail matron and office manager before retiring a decade ago after 37 years.

Robbie, as the Radcliffs call their son, was hired by his father as a jail deputy in 1980 and rose to lieutenant before retiring this year so he could run for sheriff, successfully extending the family legacy to three generations.

‘Old-style sheriff'

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is talking with Radcliff about the sheriff possibly serving as his part-time liaison to smaller sheriff's offices and police departments.

“What is unique about Dwight is his people skills and ability to deal with people,” DeWine said. “He's that kind of tenacious, old-style sheriff who knows the modern technology and tools.”

Radcliff said he doesn't plan to linger around the sheriff's office, and he is determined to finally set aside time to spend with his wife.

“I'm not going to be around here. I came into office clean, and I'm leaving clean,” he said. “This place is going to be here long after I'm gone. I will miss it, though. I loved every day.”

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