From Sunday's Times and News-Star
He had nothing to do with the nickname given to him by his aunt, who said as a baby he was the color of a red snapper.
I never could call him “Snapp,” though I love the name. It fit. I called him either “Sir” or “Sheriff,” a couple of the many handles he had to earn through his 84 years, including U.S. Marshal, chairman of deacons, husband, daddy, confidant, diplomat, problem solver, loyal friend, honest man. Maybe the one that brought him the most sheer joy was granddaddy. He wore all those well.
While those names live on, the man who served an unprecedented six terms as sheriff of Claiborne Parish died on January 9, the end of a remarkable life of nearly a half-century behind the badge and out of the spotlight. Sheriff Oakes didn’t talk about himself unless pressed, didn’t hold a grudge and didn’t keep score.
As sharp as he was, he was terrible at recognizing social standing or color or rank. He lived in ways that illustrated how life is not about any of those things, nor about intellect, but about relationships. With him, honesty and people are what counted.
Through the years, I’d think of him so much it surprised me, all because of a day he stopped his world to step into mine. One August evening in 1978, a brown Chevy Nova pulled into the driveway of the parsonage where the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Homer lived. An 18-year-old got out, covered in concrete and mud after a day working at Beacon Gas Plant.
Right after that the Claiborne Parish Sheriff’s car pulled in, and a man leaned over to the passenger door, opened it, and said, “Get in.”
I was the teenager; Snapp Oakes was the grownup. And the sheriff.
I asked him if he wanted me to go inside and rinse off. “Just get in,” he said. And not long after that we were pulling onto the campus of Louisiana Tech in Ruston, where the sheriff was explaining I’d enroll in school and work. It was a ride and a day that changed my mind and my life. It might have been a “nothing” weekday evening to anyone else, but for me it proved to be a pivotal few hours that set in motion a series of events that gave me some direction and purpose, maybe even a little confidence. How many other lives he changed on otherwise long-ago forgotten days, only Heaven knows.
It must be that God moves people into your life for the purpose of doing things for you that you, at that point -- and no one closest to you -- can do for yourself. The sheriff, my sheriff, knew what to do that day. On his own time, he made time for me. With nothing to gain. I didn’t grow up in Homer; he’d known me less than a year. The risk that I would embarrass him was greater than the chance he was taking on trying to help me. It takes humility and grace to perform like that, to be an important man who’ll stop his watch and give a boy an at-bat, a chance, one I’d done nothing to earn.
Probably because of the setting and culture and era in which I was raised, Sheriff Andy Taylor has been, since I can remember, a favorite character of mine. The more I watched “The Andy Griffith Show,” the more I sort of always wanted to grow up to be Andy. A lot of us my age did.
And I love Andy. But there’s this, too:
It’s one thing to figure out which old lady is shoplifting at Weaver’s Department Store in Mayberry, or solve in another 26 minutes the mystery of the loaded goat. But when things get dicey in real life, as they did sometimes in Claiborne Parish, especially in the 1960s, when your family is threatened and somebody suggests it might be better for all concerned if your house burned to the ground, it’s a bit of a different ballgame.
It’s been my privilege to meet so many area lawmen and lawwomen; the sheriff loved them all. Their jobs are among the world’s most challenging, and public service, my sheriff believed, was life’s highest calling. I’m grateful for all who serve.
But I think every law enforcement officer who knew my sheriff -- our sheriff -- would agree with me that not only Andy Taylor but also every other upright upholder of the law, whether in fact or in fiction, are all playing for second place behind “Snapp” Oakes, who is, and will always be, my favorite sheriff.