When Mearl Justus was described as a lion, we found it an apt description.
We would have described him as a 6 feet 2 inch teddy bear with a sailor's vocabulary and hero's heart. He was gruff. He was endearing. He was a champion, rescuing us from the bad guys for 60 years.
His soul may have been in Cahokia, where he grew up in his grandparents' home, attended Holy Family School and spent 30 years as a cop and chief, but he sure adopted the rest of St. Clair County.
He was there at the start of the Major Case Squad, seeing the need for police departments to pool resources and help one another when confronted with a major crime.
It's been decades, but his scheme to take in fugitives by setting up a phony shoe store in Swansea and then mailing the bad guys notices that they'd won free tennis shoes is legendary. He called it "Nabbir" Athletic Footwear and it took in 43 fugitives and $18,000 in bail on July 30, 1990, before word got out. He closed up shop the next day with a sign: "Closed, Catch ya next time!"
He got an old armored car rigged with surveillance gear to park outside drug houses. He was a lead in the chorus to curb bar hours and thus violent crime in East St. Louis.
And he led the effort to remember fallen comrades, creating a memorial and an annual tribute to those who died in public service. He would regularly nag News-Democrat staffers to make sure they covered that memorial service and his other favorite event -- the award ceremony for his sheriff's employees.
Justus once told us that he didn't like being the center of attention and was basically a quiet man -- more Mearl humor? All those photos of him promoting his sheriff's auction and his many trips to the podium during local banquets seem to belie that.
Henny Youngman emerged when Justus got in front of a microphone. "My wife is still shocked by four letter words -- wash, iron, cook," he quipped. "She makes a meatloaf that glows in the dark."
We know he loved law enforcement, a career he fell into after his warehouse job vanished. He said he looked forward to coming to work every day and wanted people to think of him as an honest, people-oriented public official.
"I don't treat everybody alike, but I try to treat everybody fair," he said in 1983. "Law enforcement has been my life's work. I enjoy people. I would hope I'd be able to make life a little bit better for people who work for me."
He could have retired from Cahokia in 1981 but instead spent another 30 years as sheriff, saying he had no desire to retire. "I think retirement is slow death."
And we always assumed the only way he'd leave the sheriff's department was feet first. The lion's passing a week after resigning was a sad irony.
Our solace is that Mearl Justus left behind a few generations of guardians to take over his watch.
We will remember him as an honest, people-oriented public official -- and quite a character.