Durbin Pays Tribute to St. Clair County Sheriff Mearl Justus on Senate Floor
Legendary law enforcement officer will be missed for his humor and dedication to the people of St. Clair County
[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today paid tribute to the life and career of Mearl Justus, a devoted public servant who served eight terms as St. Clair County’s sheriff. Sheriff Justus passed away on Tuesday, just one week after his retirement as Sheriff of St. Clair County.
“My home county of St. Clair, Illinois lost a dedicated public servant this week,” Durbin said. “Sheriff Justus was a legend in St. Clair County. He was funny. He was an innovative and creative thinker who was always looking for new and better ways to run his department. Above all, he was deeply dedicated to the people of St. Clair County.”
“Sheriff Justus said he looked forward to coming to work every day and wanted people to think of him as an honest, people-oriented public official. He will be remembered as that and more. Mearl Justice made St. Clair County not just a safer place but a better place. I am honored to have known him.”
Sheriff Justus began his nearly 60-year-long career in law enforcement when he was hired as a part-time police officer for the Cahokia Police Department. Sheriff Justus rose quickly through the ranks, eventually serving 22 years as Cahokia’s police chief. He was elected Sheriff of St. Clair County in 1983 in his first bid for elected office, and re-elected seven times.
As St. Clair County’s Sheriff, Mearl Justus was known for his sense of humor and his innovative approach to law enforcement. This included providing jail inmates with a vegetable garden and hosting a “Slumber in the Slammer” fundraiser for a women's crisis center. Over the course of his six decades of public service, Sheriff Justus also established several programs for local schools, including “stranger danger” awareness training and the establishment of the D.A.R.E program. Sheriff Justice’s methods were so successful that he was elected President of the Illinois Sherriff’s Association and chairman of the board of his region’s Major Case Squad.
The text of Durbin’s remarks is below:
Remarks by Senator Richard Durbin
Paying Tribute to Sheriff Mearl Justus
December 20, 2012
My home county of St. Clair, Illinois lost a dedicated public servant this week. Mearl Justus passed away Tuesday at the age of 81. Incredibly, he had retired only one week earlier, after serving eight terms as St. Clair County’s sheriff.
Sheriff Justus was a legend in St. Clair County. He was funny. He was an innovative and creative thinker who was always looking for new and better ways to run his department. Above all, he was deeply dedicated to the people of St. Clair County.
An editorial in the Belleview News-Democrat described him as “a 6 feet 2 inch teddy bear with a sailor's vocabulary and hero's heart. He was gruff. He was endearing. He was a champion, rescuing us from the bad guys for 60 years.”
Sheriff Justus got off to a rocky start in life. He was just 19 months old when his father died, and he was raised by his grandparents.
He was a high school dropout in 1953 when the mayor of Cahokia, Illinois, suggested he join the local police force. That is how the aptly named Mr. Justus began his nearly 60-year-long career in law enforcement.
He started as a part-time police officer for the Cahokia Police Department. He earned his GED and went on to earn an associate’s degree at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, and then earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He advanced quickly up the ranks and served as Cahokia’s police chief for 22 years.
He ran for Sheriff of St. Clair County in 1983 and won – his first run for elected office. He would be re-elected seven times, never losing an election.
Sheriff Justus loved his job and he loved having fun. One of the most legendary tales of his years as sheriff was when he sent notices to several hundred fugitives telling them they had won a free pair of sneakers from the fictional Nabbir Shoe Store. When the scofflaws turned up to claim their sneakers, the sheriff’s department locked them up. The department made over 50 arrests that day -- and one the next, despite the fact that the prior day’s arrests had been widely reported in the local news. He closed up shop with a sign that read, "Closed, Catch ya next time!"
He once explained to a reporter, “In this business, to keep from going off the deep end, you need that humor.”
Sheriff Justus didn’t drink or smoke and rarely carried a gun because, he said, it was bulky and it “tears my clothes up.”
He sold advertising space on patrol cars and put public service announcements on the fenders.
He provided jail inmates with a garden to grow vegetables. The prisoners grew their produce and gave any extra to local nursing homes.
Sheriff Justus was so dedicated to his work that he and his wife Audrey lived for years in a three-bedroom apartment above the county jail. He said he figured that’s where he was needed. At first, the couple found the routine cell checks a little disturbing but they grew fond of their living arrangement and even raised a granddaughter in the apartment.
Over the course of his six decades of public service, Sheriff Justus established several programs for local schools, including “stranger danger” awareness training. He also introduced the D.A.R.E program -- Drug Abuse Resistance Education program – into St. Clair County schools long before many other communities had it.
Sheriff Justus’ success and dedication was widely admired by his peers, who elected President of the Illinois Sherriff’s Association. He was also chairman of the board of his region’s Major Case Squad.
In recent years, Sheriff Justus led efforts to combat crime and vandalism on MetroLink trains, the county’s light rail transit system, making the system safer for those who depend on it.
Mearl Justus had an amazing sense of humor. For many years, his own website featured the Sheriff wearing a sombrero and a boast that any local event featuring Mearl Justus as the masters of ceremonies would draw twice as many people.
He cared deeply about people. He hosted "Slumber in the Slammer" fundraiser for a women's crisis center, allowing people to sleep in the jail in exchange for a donation to a local crisis center. He once arranged a cataract surgery for a woman whose savings had been stolen.
He said he looked forward to coming to work every day and wanted people to think of him as an honest, people-oriented public official. He will be remembered as that and more. Mearl Justice made St. Clair County not just a safer place but a better place. I am honored to have known him.
Loretta and I send our condolences to his wife Audrey, his daughters Kay and Debra, his three granddaughters and his three great grandchildren.
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