A line stretched outside the chapel door of First Baptist Church in Ludowici on Wednesday afternoon as a steady stream of family, friends and community members gathered to pay their final respects to Long County Sheriff Cecil Nobles, who died early Monday morning.
Nobles had been elected to office for 13 terms, devoting 51 years of his life to the community as a coroner and then as sheriff. He was the longest-serving sheriff in Georgia and the second-longest-serving in the nation.
"I’ve been in the fire department here for over 35 years and Mr. Cecil has been in the sheriff’s department the whole time I’ve been in public safety," Ludowici/Long County Fire Chief and EMA Director Darrell Ballance said Wednesday evening. "We worked close together … and Mr. Cecil was my eighth-grade math teacher in 1968. … We go back a long way."
Ballance said everyone loved Nobles and his entire family.
"It’s just going to be a heartfelt impact for the whole community," he added. "You can see from the turnout we’ve had, the whole community has come out to show their respects tonight. He will be sorely missed."
Area residents of all ages entered the church. Words such as gentle, kind, fair and honorable were spoken by many as they hugged or offered their condolences to Nobles’ wife of 54 years, Peggy DeLoach Nobles.
"Just look around at the crowd … the number of people, not only from Long County, but the other parts of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit and beyond the state boundaries," Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden said at the wake. "He was a friend and mentor to a lot of people. The impact will be felt more in Long County, but it will be felt throughout the state, and there are some big shoes to fill right now. They will be filled eventually, but it won’t be easy."
Durden, who has served alongside Nobles since 1984, said he learned a lot from the sheriff during his tenure. He said Nobles reminded him of a former high school football coach who always told his players, "Do what you think is right and go with your gut."
"And that is what Cecil always did when dealing with anyone. Cecil was fair," Durden said. "The citizens of Long County are resilient; however, there is a big hole here because Sheriff Nobles had been the go-to guy here for a long time."
"My heart goes out to the family," Polly E. Martin said.
Martin said she understands the pain the Nobles family is going through. Martin is the widow of former Liberty County Sheriff J. Don Martin, who died in May 2010.
"Don and Cecil were friends for many, many years and worked together closely," she said. "It’s a big loss for the family, and I truly offer my condolences to them during this time."
On Thursday morning, the law-enforcement community came out in force to honor Nobles. Squad cars from Effingham, McIntosh, Bulloch, Chatham, Liberty and Long counties and Ludowici, Kingsland and Clayton illuminated Highway 301 during the funeral procession, which ran from First Baptist Church to Jones Creek Church, where Nobles was interred.
Representatives from the Georgia Forestry Commission, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Department of Corrections, Field Supervision Unit also attended the funeral services. Nobles once served as a member of the Georgia Board of Corrections.
The officers’ badges were covered with a black strip and the Honor Guard of the Georgia Department of Public Safety brought Nobles to his final resting place. Officers saluted as bagpipes played in the background while the family comforted each other and shared fond memories of Nobles for a few more minutes.