Nation's longest-serving sheriff hopes to hand badge over to son

Pickaway County Sheriff Dwight E. Radcliff says informing relatives of people killed in auto accidents is the worst part of the job.

Story highlights

  • Pickaway County, Ohio, Sheriff Dwight E. Radcliff is nation's longest-serving sheriff
  • Now 80, the Ohio sheriff plans to step down after the November 6 election
  • He first won office in 1965, was elected to 12 terms
  • Radcliff's father, Charles, was sheriff and his son, Robert, is running for the office
It now seems like a lifetime ago that a young man in Circleville, Ohio, first pinned the Pickaway County sheriff's badge to his shirt. It was 1965, and he had just beaten the man who took the office from his daddy four years earlier.
The young man is 80 now, with a lawman son of his own. But Dwight E. Radcliff is still wearing that badge. He is believed to be the longest-serving sheriff in the United States.
Radcliff says he didn't set out to make history, and that it recently "struck me that enough is enough." He has decided to hang up his holster for good.
From running the jailhouse to rounding up criminals, Radcliff witnessed the best and worst his fellow man had to offer during 12 terms as sheriff. He has worked for the department since 1953, when he started at the bottom as a deputy.
"I'm just thankful to the citizens of Pickaway County for seeing fit to elect me." Radcliff recently told CNN in a telephone interview. "It's been an enjoyable career and I'd love to do it again."
While Radcliff says he's ready for retirement, his wife of 58 years, Betty, isn't so sure. "He doesn't golf, he doesn't bowl, he doesn't dance," she said. "I don't know what he's going to do."
For starters, he will try to keep the sheriff's business in the family. His father, Charles Radcliff, was the Pickaway County sheriff from 1931 to 1961. Now, his son, Robert B. Radcliff, 50, is hoping voters will choose him on November 6 to succeed his dad and become the county's third Sheriff Radcliff.
"I never take anything for granted," Robert Radcliff said of his chances at the polls. "But it's been going good, it's been very positive."
 Pickaway County Sheriff Dwight E. Radcliff (shown in 1954) is the longest-serving sheriff in the United States.
Pickaway County, population 55,000 or so, derives its name from the Pekowi band of Shawnee Indians. It is a slice of agricultural America near the center of Ohio and is also know for its golf courses. The county's most popular event is the annual Circleville Pumpkin Show, which is held each year on the third Wednesday in October.
A Democrat like his father, the younger Radcliff is a veteran law enforcement officer. He spent 32 years climbing the ranks from deputy to lieutenant before retiring in February.
"My father never wanted to show any favoritism," he said, "I was there for 12 years before I was promoted. Working for your dad wasn't easy. We butted heads a lot."
Dwight Radcliff was raised to be a lawman. He was born in the official sheriff's residence, located inside the old jail. What was confinement to the inmates was home to three generations of Radcliffs.
"I was the matron," his wife, Betty, recalled. "I took care of all the adult women and the juvenile boys and girls, and that was quite an experience."
A new lockup replaced the old jailhouse 20 years ago. The sheriff's staff, which began with just a small handful, now numbers more than 100. Dwight Radcliff still goes to work on Sundays and holidays. He has 10 walkie-talkies in the house -- including one in the bathroom, and another in the laundry, said his wife.
But if his dedication remains the same, many other aspects to the jobs have changed over the years.
"When I first ran for the office, there were a lot of things you can do with a handshake without worrying about the controversy," Dwight Radcliff said. "And where I find it very difficult is the way criminal statutes have changed. The maneuvers you have to go through in the courts, it seems you have roadblocks wherever you go."
 Sheriff Dwight E. Radcliff, shown with son Robert and wife Betty, hopes Robert will be elected to take his place.
Those obstacles make the pursuit of justice more difficult, the sheriff says.
"I'm the kind of person that feels if you do something, you commit a crime, you pay," he explains. "I don't want somebody charged that is not guilty. It used to be if someone was arrested they would have to get their own attorney, now all they got to do is say they don't have the funds and the state appoints a public defender and that's added money. You can't take a chance today."
Radcliff is passionate about his profession.
"He's given 24/7," wife Betty said. "As sheriff, he never gets away. We've sat down for Thanksgiving dinner and he'd get a call and we wouldn't see him for 24 hours. He never stopped to eat, he would keep going until he got his man. And I understood that."
It's in Radcliff's blood, their son agrees. "He demands so much. He wants to know everything that's going on. He lives it, eats it, breathes it."
Asked what the hardest part of the job is, Sheriff Radcliff doesn't hesitate: "When you have to go to a motor vehicle accident and notify the next of kin. The knock on the door and the mom in her bathrobe answers and you have to tell them that her son was just killed."
Retiring will give Dwight Radcliff more time to spend with his children and grandchildren. He and his wife will get the chance to do things they never could while he was on the job.
"Our health is still good and we better take what time we have and enjoy ourselves instead of looking back and saying 'I wish we did this,'" he said, adding that he leaves without regrets and knows he did the best he could.
And he said he's ready for some down time.
"If anyone doesn't like me because of what I've done, so let it be," he said. I've done my job."