Joe Nichols, the soft-spoken, self-described “Army brat” who put his indelible fingerprint on law enforcement in Newton County for more than four decades, died Monday in Statesboro. He was 77.
A native of Jesup, George Joseph Nichols Jr. served three terms as Newton County sheriff before retiring in 2009. He began his law enforcement career with the Covington Police Department and was chief deputy for the Sheriff’s Office from 1976 until 1996 under Gerald Malcom before winning election as sheriff when Malcom retired.
When Nichols – who was lauded for both his sense of fairness and sense of humor – retired, he moved with his wife Lois back to Southeast Georgia, where he was born and raised.
“My father did over four decades of law enforcement and he did his time for Newton County, and when he retired he said that was my mom’s time for all the years she was the wife of a sheriff and chief deputy,” said Nichols’ son, Joe Nichols III. “That job obviously takes away a lot of time from the family. I understood what my father did. I thought my father was a great man. But because of the nature of his work, that work always came first.”
Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown, whose law enforcement career also began with the Covington Police, has served as sheriff since Nichols’ retirement and earlier this week shared his condolences, also noting that in addition to Nichols being his immediate past predecessor (and boss), he and Nichols once opposed each other for sheriff, and that they were both members of the original Covington-Newton County SWAT Team in 1979.
“What do you say about an individual who is no longer here but who shared your law enforcement space for so many years?” wrote Brown in a prepared statement. “…Joe and I both grew up in South Georgia, to which he returned after retiring in 2008. We made Newton County our home…I extend my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. A loss of this type is never easy. The Newton County Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia Sheriff’s Association will sincerely miss him.”
The extra mile
John Ott, chief judge of the Alcovy Judicial Circuit (which includes Newton and Walton counties), had a long career connection with Nichols. Ott was hired as an assistant district attorney in 1981, was elected district attorney in 1984 and was appointed to the bench in 1990, winning re-election in every term since.
“I’ve worked with him over the years and maybe more closely with him when I was district attorney and then judge,” said Ott. “I always found Joe to be the consummate professional, extremely competent, always willing to go the extra mile for anything you requested, both in the District Attorney’s Office and from the bench.
“He was the quintessential public servant. He’s exactly who you want to be a public servant. All he was concerned about was doing his job as best he could and helping and being of service to everybody. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him through the years, and we got to be real good friends.”
Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton, who was appointed chief the same year Nichols was first sworn in as sheriff, said he made it a priority early in his career as a patrol officer to make an impression on Nichols and wanted nothing more than to be part of the SWAT team, of which Nichols was then team leader.
“When I found out about the Covington-Newton County SWAT Team, that was my No. 1 goal, probably because I was an athlete in high school and to me, the SWAT team was like being on the football team,” said Cotton, who joined the Covington Police in 1987. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
An appointment to the SWAT team meant a promotion on the police force, and Cotton recalled he couldn’t wait to tell Nichols the good news.
“One of the things that happened then was all the SWAT team members were able to move up in rank,” said Cotton. “The next year, when I was promoted to sergeant, I was so proud I went to Joe to tell him I’d made it to sergeant and to me it was like telling a mentor that I was living up to the standard he’d placed on that SWAT team – which was to be the best you could be.”
The notion of service
Ott and Cotton concurred that when it came to the limelight, Nichols could not be less interested.
“He was quite a humble man,” said Ott. “He did not try to get headlines, and he did not put himself out there with pride or anything. He was just a very humble man that really took to heart that notion of service.”
“I remember Joe’s unassuming personality – he never wanted to be the center of anybody’s attention,” said Cotton. “I remember I became chief and he was elected sheriff about the same time. We actually got into our roles in the same year. That was fun for our relationship to be the chief and the sheriff in the same community.
“We would go to community functions we were invited to, and he always wanted to sit in the back, never wanted anybody to make a fuss over him. I always enjoyed that about him, and more importantly, he taught me to humble myself in the service of others. It wasn’t about the chief or the sheriff – it was about whoever had invited us. It was their event, and we were humbled to be there and honored they’d think to invite us. I’ve tried to keep that attitude ever since.”
“He’d been very adamant about not wanting a lot of drama; that was not him,” said Joe Nichols III. “The hoopla and the parades and all that – that was not my father. I appreciate immeasurably the response that we’ve had.
“A lot of people will talk about what my dad did, because he was sheriff and chief deputy. I hope people will talk about what he was and not just what he did for a living. And what he was, was a whole lot more than a sheriff. The outpouring speaks volumes about how he was regarded.”
For many in local law enforcement, the last few years have been sad ones with the deaths of Nichols, former Covington Police Chief Bobby Moody and former assistant chief Almond Turner.
“We’ve lost Joe and we lost Chief Moody over Labor Day weekend last year,” said Cotton. “So to lose two iconic law enforcement figures – one of them hired me and the other was the SWAT team leader when I got there. And we lost Almond Turner back in 2019. It’s kind of lonely, actually.”
In an interview with the Newton Citizen upon his retirement, Nichols got right to the point about being in charge yet still having thousands of supervisors. It’s clear he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I think the sheriff’s office is the greatest law enforcement agency around,” he said. “A sheriff answers directly to the people. I have 100,000 bosses. If you don’t do a good job, if you embarrass the people of the county, if you don’t take the badge seriously, if you don’t serve the people well, you’re replaced. The Sheriff’s Office is unique because you don’t have a boss, a council or a commission to direct its movements.”
According to the obituary from Rinehart and Sons Funeral Home in Jesup, Nichols is survived by his wife of 53 years, Lois; his sons Joe Nichols III and Josh Nichols; and six grandchildren. A private celebration of life was planned.