MIDDLEBURY — They arrived from all corners of the state by the hundreds on Monday, bathing Middlebury College’s white marble Mead Chapel in a sea of green, blue and black.
From constables to reformed lawbreakers to the governor of the state of Vermont, they filled the chapel to honor a man who many described as a “giant” in law enforcement — Addison County Sheriff James Coons, who died on April 16 following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 59.
“For 30 years, we slept soundly knowing that Jim Coons was on the job,” said former Vermont Gov. James Douglas, a longtime Middlebury resident.
“We will forever be in his debt.”
Douglas was one of several speakers who saluted Coons, the longest serving sheriff in the state of Vermont. First elected in 1982, Coons greatly improved and expanded the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, modernizing its equipment, facilities and protocols.
He became what Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux called “the reigning patriarch” of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, sharing resources for the common good of regional investigations.
“The admiration and respect for Sheriff Coons transcends all color in uniform,” Marcoux said. “He was informed and had keen insight, which is attributable to the fact that he listened to people.”
Marcoux and others said Coons’ devotion to his law enforcement duties was only surpassed by his devotion to his family.
“To say that Jim had his priorities in order would be an understatement,” said the Rev. Elisabeth Smith, pastor of the Middlebury United Methodist Church, at which the Coons family were parishioners. “He greatly enjoyed being involved in law enforcement and in the Middlebury community, but the true loves of his life were (wife) Julie (and sons) Jeff and Jeremy.”
Added Smith: “Jim was an excellent example of what a husband, father and man should be.”
The Rev. Laurel Jordan, chaplain of Middlebury College, said Coons — an avid guitarist and Beatles enthusiast — touched many people of different backgrounds during an active life. She recalled Julie Coons picking through a stack of condolence letters and producing two that she thought epitomized the impact the sheriff had on people.
“She received a card from former Gov. Jim Douglas and she had also received one from a couple who were responsible for cleaning the restrooms at Addison County Fair and Field Days,” Jordan said. “To her, it was a symbol, an emblem and a reminder of how kindly and fairly he treated everyone, no matter their rank or station in life.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin said he knew Coons personally and wanted to pay tribute to his service.
“Jim will go down as one of the titans in law enforcement in Vermont,” Shumlin said. “When I think about him, I think about the era of his leadership … He cared dearly about his community. He had an incredible ability to get along with anybody. He showed extraordinary judgment and he was one of a kind.”
Scores of current and retired Vermont State Police, local law enforcement, fire officials, sheriff’s department personnel, firefighters and Addison County Courthouse workers (including judges) attended Coons’ memorial service. They lined the chapel balcony, while friends, family and local officials — including members of the Middlebury selectboard — filled the seats in the worship hall. A reported 1,000 attended the memorial.
Speakers acknowledged that while Coons took his job seriously, he enjoyed some moments of levity — particularly early in his life, according to former colleagues.
Jordan noted that Coons, as a child, lived in the sheriff’s department jailhouse with his family. That’s because Jim Coons’ dad, Morton, had served as county sheriff from 1955-1961. On one occasion, Coons locked his sister in one of the jail cells and left her there for a couple of hours.
Robert Duhaime, a retired VSP detective sergeant, recounted a tit-for-tat pranking duel he had with Coons over the years. He recalled driving to work one day and mysteriously tearing up. The reason, according to Duhaime: Coons had allegedly put some mace in his car defroster.
After becoming the victim of additional pranks, Duhaime carefully plotted his revenge. He convinced a car dealer to make him duplicate keys to Coons’ new car. For the next two-and-a-half years, Duhaime would occasionally spot Coons’ parked car and move it to a different, nearby location.
When Duhaime finally confessed to the prank, Coons’ reaction was classic.
“He said, ‘I damn near saw a psychiatrist because of that,’” Duhaime recalled.
But fun aside, Duhaime recalled Coons as having a spiritual side that helped sustain him — particularly as he grew more ill. And Duhaime helped nurture that spirituality based on a personal experience dating back to July 1, 1998. Duhaime said he died that day — for around eight minutes — during a medical crisis.
“I know I was someplace that I hadn’t been before, and I certainly wasn’t where I just left,” Duhaime said. “I experienced probably one of the most beautiful experiences that you can conceivably think of. I am at a loss for words at describing how beautiful that experience was.”
Emergency responders were able to revive Duhaime, who said he now thinks of the episode “every minute of every day.” It is an experience he said has given him confidence in an afterlife, one that he is confident Coons has found.
“The last thing Jim Coons said before he left us … was, ‘Hi mom.’”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]