BELLEVILLE — St. Clair County Sheriff Mearl Justus has canceled his annual Christmas party because he continues to recover from gall bladder surgery.
Justus, who turned 81 on Wednesday, and his wife, Audrey, moved out of their county-provided apartment above the sheriff's department to St. Paul's Retirement Apartments nearby a few weeks ago, after Justus underwent gallbladder surgery.
But the 81-year-old sheriff insisted in an interview with a News-Democrat reporter last week that, despite his recent surgery, he is recovering, going to work and planning to finish his term.
"As long as I keep getting better, I am going to keep working," Justus said.
As for the recent move, Audrey Justus never liked the apartment above the sheriff's department, said the sheriff's assistant, Rick Watson, who is a former Cahokia police chief. The apartment above the sheriff's department has windows that don't open, as well as security doors.
"She couldn't get any fresh air. It's difficult for people to visit," Watson said. "As she recovered from a recent illness, the sheriff said that if an apartment came open at St. Paul's, that they would move there. And they did."
The sheriff is serving his eighth term in office, first elected in 1982. He would be up for re-election in 2014, though he declined to speculate on whether he will run again.
His annual Christmas party benefited local food pantries by asking attendees to donate canned foods.
"He hated to cancel it. He really did," Watson said. "He just didn't think he could do what he needed to do, all the standing and things."
The Justuses are recovering and settling into their new digs. The sheriff continues to go to the department and make public appearances, riding in a float in Belleville's Santa Parade last week.
Justus became police chief in Cahokia in 1962.
If retirement plans are in the works, Watson said he's interested in the job, but he hasn't heard the sheriff say he's quitting.
"Every day he's progressing and getting better and stronger," Watson said. "He's the comeback kid and you can never count him out."