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April 15, 2021

Mack Williams: First sheriff of my memory

Just the other day, I heard someone recounting the name of the president of the United States under whom they were born (stated this way, sounding kind of like an astrological sign of the zodiac). That led me to think of some other “firsts” in my life (nothing indelicate, just politicians, officials, teachers, ministers, etc.).

With my having been born in 1951, my first president was technically Harry Truman, but the first remembered was Dwight D. Eisenhower (spelled differently by the “brick” people).

My first principal was Granite Quarry School’s Mr. C.L. Barnhardt.

My first grade teacher was Mrs. Hazel Kluttz.

The first pastor of my memory was Pastor William L. Bumgarner of Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church.

When it comes to sheriff, although Sheriff John Stirewalt was the one in office when I was in high school, college and later, the very first of my memory was Sheriff Arthur J. Shuping.

Although Sheriff Shuping went out of office in 1966 (the year of my father’s death), my memory of him comes from a crime he investigated around the late 1950s.To the best of my memory it was the late ’50s, for my mental snapshot seems to be cast in a sort of “’50s sepia,” not unlike photographs from earlier times. (Just to mention, it doesn’t take long for saved newspapers to assume that shade.)

I recall two pictures that day on a page of the Salisbury Post (then, “Evening Post,” like the “Saturday” magazine of similar name).

One photo was of Sheriff Shuping sitting in his office, holding a cigar (as best as I can recall). The other picture was of an abandoned well. I seem to want to remember my mother being the one who read the article to me while I looked at those pictures.

Just now, I recall an old picture of my grandmother Hamlet, seated in a chair and reading to me while I’m looking over her shoulder, my mother’s paisley scarf tied around my neck as a cape (my George Reeves’ days).

According to what was read to me, there had been a murder which had gone unsolved for awhile. Sheriff Shuping’s office had located an abandoned well, discovering that a skeleton had been dropped there, or rather, a body (invariably preceding the skeleton).

I can’t recall whether it was Sheriff Shuping, a detective, or deputy who had descended into that well, which to the best of my memory was described as being dry.

Always being afraid of the water (and still so), I remember being a little frightened of looking down into my grandmother Williams’ well in North Wilkesboro. But when a much-less-dangerous quantity of that great-tasting, Appalachian foothill’s water ascended in the bucket for “ladling,” my fear was abated and my thirst was quenched.

Despite his being a big man, if Sheriff Shuping had descended into that well to inspect those bones, it wouldn’t have surprised me. That seems to have been about the same time I was watching Broderick Crawford (another large man) perform most of his own stunts on the old “Highway Patrol” TV show. It was also around this time I saw Jackie Gleason (a very large man) who could dance swiftly and gracefully to his “traveling music” while saying “And away we go!”

In those days, I was watching Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Watson) solve murders on “The Late Movie.”

Since that time, I have seen many episodes of Hercule Poirot and TV “forensics” shows; but what was being read to me on that long-past day about the skeleton in the well “took,” because it was “for real!”

It has become a common cliche’ for people (usually of a “Northern clime”) to make fun of Southern lawmen, especially if they are “men of girth.”

No one needed to point out Sheriff Shuping’s “rotundity” to us, for we knew it well. (It does seem a little odd, however, that my memory forever associates a corpulent man with a skeleton, something approaching “corpulessness.”)

Though he may not have looked to be the picture of “exercise-program fitness” as those people seen on present-day “workout” channels, this wasn’t “present day,” but “another day.”

It was a time when his wrapping up of a macabre murder case made a great impression on a small child. That former child (now old man) writes even now that, despite not being the “picture of fitness,” that as far as being sheriff was concerned, Arthur J. Shuping “fit the bill!”

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