Editor’s Note — Throughout the month of July, this series will take a look at the stories behind the names that are memorialized on several of Scott County’s bridges. July is the month in which America celebrates her independence and freedom, and many of those who have had bridges named after them in Scott County have served their community and their nation faithfully in either the armed forces or law enforcement. The series began with the Col. Joe Cecil bridge over New River and continued last week with the Cpl. Rusty Lee Washam Memorial Bridge over Buffalo Creek.
In 20 years in the newspaper business, I’ve cried one time on an assignment.
There have been several occasions where I’ve choked back tears — during particularly touching court proceedings, in one-on-one interviews. Journalism is by its very nature, I believe, an emotional job. You see people at the highest of highs, but you also see them at the lowest of lows.
But there’s only been one time when I wasn’t successful holding back those tears. In December 2013, two weeks before Christmas, I stood in Fairview Memorial Gardens, trying to take photos of a graveside service for Sheriff Mike Cross, at the request of the Cross family, while also trying to stay out of the way and inconspicuous.
With traffic stopped in either direction on nearby S.R. 63, there was no sound except the distant hum of approaching Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopters in a missing man formation. The radio in Sheriff Cross’s patrol cruiser crackled to life with a dispatcher’s voice giving his last call: “Huntsville to Unit 1. Huntsville to Unit 1. Last call for Unit 1. Sheriff Mike Cross, 25 years of service, is 10-7. Sheriff Mike Cross, end of watch.”
And the tears flowed freely.
I did not know Sheriff Cross before I came to work at the Independent Herald full-time in 2003. But I soon got to know him as a “news-maker,” someone I would run into at the scenes of traffic accidents, fires and other tragedies; someone I would interview about drug busts and burglary investigations, and someone who would just occasionally drop by my office for a chat. I considered him the finest sheriff Scott County has ever had — and I don’t say that to take anything away from his successor, his chief deputy Ronnie Phillips, or any of his predecessors, the two most recent of which were Jim Carson and Anthony Lay.
In this business, you aren’t supposed to say those things. You don’t heap praise upon elected officials, because you have to maintain an appearance of impartiality, and remain in a position to write critical stories of those elected officials when circumstances warrant.
Circumstances did warrant such a story on one occasion, while Cross was still chief of police in Oneida, and that helped form my opinion of him.
The story was about a watchdog group’s undercover investigation of the police department’s response to requests for public records. It was highly critical of the department, and so was my story. After the newspaper was published, Chief Cross called. And he was furious. For what seemed like half an hour, he chewed on me like I had never been chewed on by anyone aside from my father and perhaps my elementary school principal. And I just listened, because I deserved it. I stood by the substance of the story, but I hadn’t called the department to give the chief a chance to respond before the story was published. It was one-sided, he was mad, and he had every right to be.
But before he hung up the phone, he was back to his amicable self. He even invited me to go squirrel hunting.
That was the thing about Chief Cross: He was stern, he was mean when he needed to be, he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. But he was also fair and forgiving. He didn’t hold grudges; he could forgive and forget.
I’ve written stories over the years that have been critical of other public figures and left them angry. A few times their anger was probably justified; a few times it probably wasn’t. None of them have ever chewed me out like Chief Cross did, but a few of them have never stopped holding a grudge. Chief Cross said what needed to be said, and then he got over it. I hung up the phone that day — which was probably sometime in 2005 or 2006, but I don’t remember exactly when — with a lot more respect for him than I had before.
I got to know Mike Cross through both his years at OPD and his brief time as Scott County’s sheriff. I spent a lot of time watching him work. I spent more time in his cruiser doing ride-alongs than with any other law enforcement officer since I’ve been in the business. Through all-day drug round-ups on holidays to late nights on random back roads in far-fetched corners of Scott County as he assisted his law enforcement teams with undercover drug investigations, I learned a lot about Mike Cross the law enforcement chief, and Mike Cross the man. And he was exceptional at both.
My favorite Mike Cross story might be a mid 2000s football game I was covering at Christian Academy of Knoxville. CAK was just starting its football program at the time, and was in Oneida’s region. Then-Chief Cross was at the game, in uniform, as the team’s security officer; his son, Tyler, was a member of the team. There was a series of questionable calls late in the game, and the chief finally had enough. He said a few choice words to the referee, and the white hat sent him to the team bus. It’s the first — and only — time I’ve seen a uniformed law enforcement officer ejected from a game. We laughed about it many times in the years that followed.
Mike Cross and I weren’t close friends; I was a young journalist trying to do my job, and he was a public figure trying to do his. But I got to see a side of Cross that the public didn’t generally get to see. Certainly, his officers saw it. And his family saw it. Beneath Sheriff Cross’s rough veneer was a strong, compassionate side. He had a burden for Scott County and the people he was encountering on the job — a burden that extended beyond enforcing the law. At his funeral in December 2013, Scott County Trustee Jimmy D. Byrd talked about how Sheriff Cross called him and sought help with organizing a county-wide prayer meeting, saying, “We have to do something.” At that point, Scott County had seen nine lives claimed by drug overdoes in a span of eight weeks, and he was convinced that the community’s drug problem was beyond his control.
I asked him once, off the record in a casual conversation, if he truly felt like the prayer meetings were making a difference. His officers were busting meth labs left and right at that point. Was it partly divine intervention or had his officers simply stepped up their efforts? He didn’t hesitate to say that he wasn’t good enough at his job to have accomplished what his department was accomplishing. It was the work of God.
I’m not sure that Mike Cross, in 2012, was the same Mike Cross I knew in 2004. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he turned over a new leaf at some point in the latter years of his life — maybe a few new leaves. He never said it, but he didn’t have to. It was obvious in the way he talked and in the way he walked. Matthew 7:16 says “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” and there was no mistaking that Sheriff Cross was a good tree bringing forth good fruit: He was a sheriff who was seeking, and being directed by, God’s guidance. He didn’t have to say it; you could sense it by just being around him.
Mike Cross was on the job as Scott County’s high sheriff just over three years before a rare form of melanoma took his life in December 2013 at the age of 56. It was the shortest tenure of any Scott County sheriff, at least in the modern era. Yet, in a short time, Cross left an indelible impact on Scott County.
As I stood there at that graveside service just before Christmas 2013, maybe I was emotional because I felt guilty. Not once did I stop by Sheriff Cross’s home to visit after he became sick. I bugged his friend and former officer, Greasey Garrett, to tell me how the sheriff was doing; I prayed for his healing, especially as it became apparent the end was close … but I never stopped to say hello, or thank you. When his widow, Tammy, told me at a funeral service earlier in the day that “he kept looking for you to come by,” I was wrecked for the day — wrecked by guilt. I was also emotional because I knew I was going to miss those too few conversations at 1 a.m. in his cruiser as I wondered if he was ever gonna drop me off so I could go home and get some sleep, or in the eighth hour of a round-up on Labor Day as I was missing a family cookout and he was laughing and saying “Labor Day is just another day to labor.” But, most of all, I think, I was emotional because I knew Scott County was bidding farewell to as fine a law enforcement officer as I had ever known.
Jim West, who officiated Sheriff Cross’s funeral, said it best as he revealed that Cross often contacted him to seek resources for people who had been arrested: “The same man who would arrest you would try to pull you back up. I believe that’s love.” Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church Pastor Tim Russell also said it well: “Sheriff Cross changed my life and my ministry.”
I think that sheriff with the rough veneer and the stern demeanor changed a lot of people’s lives. I’m positive he made me a better journalist.
There are a select few people I’ve encountered and written stories about on this job who are no longer around and who I would pay any amount of money to be able to go back and have one more conversation with. Sheriff Mike Cross is one of those people. I think about him every time I drive over the railroad overpass in south Oneida that’s named in his memory. He made people better, sure. But he also made Scott County better.