MIDDLEBURY — Addison County Sheriff Jim Coons, who died on Monday evening at the age of 59, was recalled by fellow law enforcement officials as a gregarious, savvy and cooperative public servant who dramatically transformed his department during his three decades in office.
“Jim Coons was the iconic face of law enforcement in Addison County and a bridge between the past and present,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley.
“He will be a tough act to follow.”
Coons, a bear of a man with a booming voice, died at his Middlebury home after battling cancer. Even as his health flagged during recent months, Coons continued to make key decisions in the running of his department, noted Don Keeler, a 40-year veteran of the force who suddenly found himself thrust into the job on Tuesday. As high bailiff, Keeler will perform the functions of sheriff until Gov. Peter Shumlin picks a replacement to serve the balance of Coons’ term, which expires in February of 2015.
“I never took the position (of high bailiff) really thinking I would someday be sheriff,” Keeler said, as he sat pensively in Coons’ office in the sheriff’s department headquarters and jail on Court Street, a building that was substantially refurbished under Coons’ watch.
“Jim Coons was like a brother to me and I’ll miss him tremendously.”
Coons began his career with the Middlebury Police Department, serving for around seven years until 1981, according to Hanley. Coons quickly ascended the ranks and served briefly as acting chief prior to the hiring of former Chief Al Watson. And while Coons would’ve been a prime candidate for the Middlebury chief’s vacancy, that post was not in his career plans.
“He didn’t want to be chief; he wanted to be sheriff,” Keeler said.
One of the reasons was that his late father, Morton, had served as sheriff from 1955 to 1961. Morton Coons would later go on to serve as an Addison County assistant judge.
“He grew up in this building,” department Capt. Charlie Clark said of Jim Coons.
Coons’ shot at the sheriff’s job came in 1982, when Sheriff Paul Munson elected not to run for re-election. Lt. Jim Coons, a Republican, easily beat his challenger, independent Robert Taylor of New Haven, 6,741 to 1,147.
He would never face a serious electoral threat during the balance of his career, during which he would establish himself as a formidable presence on the Addison County law enforcement scene.
“He started as the new kid on the block and he became the dean,” Keeler said.
And he accomplished a lot along the way, according to Keeler.
Perhaps the most impressive of Coons’ achievements, officials said, was modernizing and expanding and the sheriff’s department. He negotiated service contracts with county towns that did not have their own police forces but wanted some protection against speeders, thieves and/or other criminal activity. His officers took on diverse duties, including investigating drug crimes.
And Coons marshaled the resources necessary to expand his force and facilities to take on the new workload.
“We had one car, and he owned it,” Keeler said in recalling the modest capital Coons had to work with when he first started. Under Coons’ watch, the Addison County Sheriff’s Department has grown to a force of 28 full- and part-time officers with more than 10 vehicles at their disposal. They work out of a jailhouse/office building that was substantially expanded and renovated in 1996.
For his part, Keeler began as a part-time deputy with the department in 1972. When Keeler and his family sold their filling station on Court Street in 1988, Coons asked him to sign on full-time. And the sheriff was persistent enough to get what he wanted.
“He said, ‘You’re going to work for me again,’” Keeler said. “I told him, ‘No.’ And here we are today.”
Lamoille County Sheriff Robert Marcoux is president of the Vermont Sheriffs Association, an organization with which Coons was a driving force for many years. Marcoux recalled Coons as someone eager to share personnel and resources for statewide and regional investigations, including the war on drugs.
Marcoux had known Coons for more than 25 years. He came to town on Tuesday to pay his respects and to advise the Addison County Sheriff’s Department in its leadership transition.
“(Jim Coons) had a real sense of commitment to the community,” Marcoux said.
“He was a big man in stature and also in deed, and a good friend.”
Other law enforcement officials echoed Marcoux’s sentiments.
“He was always a team player, the essence of what law enforcement in the state should be about,” Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said of Coons, whom he credited with helping his career. “Jimmy Coons knew everyone. If you needed help, you got it. Whoever replaces him has big shoes to fill.”
Hanley and Keeler recalled Coons as being very proud of his family — his wife Julie and their sons Jeremy, an up-and-coming musician, and Jeffrey, who is quite the golfer.
Former Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn said he was shocked to hear of Coons’ passing. The two men had known each other for more than 35 years. They had been friends, associates and fellow guitarists in “Reminiscence,” a local band made up of law enforcement officials. Coons was a Beatles enthusiast, Quinn recalled.
“He was a really fun guy, with a great sense of humor,” Quinn said. “He would do anything for you.”
FINDING A SUCCESSOR
Once Sheriff Coons is laid to rest, officials will turn their attention to finding his successor. They will follow a statutory process calling for the Addison County Republican and Democrat committees each developing a list of nominees for the position. Those lists will be forwarded to Shumlin to make a selection. Governors have almost always selected a nominee from the party of the official who died in office. Keeler’s name will likely appear on the GOP’s list of nominees.
In the meantime, Keeler will hold down the fort until the governor makes his selection. There is no statutory timeframe for Shumlin to make his pick, according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office.
Addison County Assistant Judge Frank Broughton worked with Coons for the past 10 years. He had the task of swearing in Keeler on Tuesday.
“I considered him a good friend,” Broughton said of Coons. “He was very fair, and I think that was the way he treated everyone in the county. I think that was the reason he was so respected.”
That respect, he said, made him an “awful lot of friends,” according to Broughton.
“Everyone is going to miss him,” Broughton said. “The county has lost a good friend.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]