I believe in most everyone’s life, there are a handful of people outside that person’s family that have a profound effect on them and the direction their life takes. For many, it’s a teacher or a youth leader or a best friend. Ralph Strickland was one of those people in my life. He’s probably the number one reason why I am in the job I am in today and is certainly the reason why I do my job the way that I do it. Ralph passed away last Saturday evening at the age of 69 and I am glad that he was my friend.
I met Ralph early in my legal career when he came to work at the Durham District Attorney’s Office, where I was still a wet-behind-the-ears prosecutor. I remember that I was initially resistant to the idea of him working there because he was coming in as a supervisor for District Court (where misdemeanors and traffic cases are heard) and I was one of the District Court prosecutors. I really didn’t see the need for another supervisor (especially since I was still new enough to believe I knew absolutely everything.)
But Ralph and I hit it off immediately. We were both Christians, we had both attended UNC for undergraduate and law degrees, and we shared the same bizarre sense of humor. (Ralph’s favorite comic strip was “The Far Side”) Without setting out to do so, Ralph became a mentor to me. He was a family man, and he was quick to remind me that my family was much more important than the practice of law. He believed firmly that whether you were a police officer or a prosecutor, you did things the right way whether you won or lost the case in court. He was a man of the highest integrity.
Prior to us working together, Ralph had spent almost all of his legal career representing and training law enforcement agencies and officers. He had worked for three different agencies (he would later add a fourth) and had been the senior trainer with the North Carolina Justice Academy, where officers from all over the state would go to be taught. He used humor to make the legal instruction interesting and entertaining and he was a highly effective teacher because of it.
It was Ralph that encouraged me to take my current job as the attorney for the High Point Police Department when it became available and I had grown tired of being an Assistant District Attorney. We had both left the Durham office years prior, but had kept in touch through phone calls in a time before Facebook made it much easier to do so. When I took the job, he told me that the best things I could do was make sure the officers knew they could call me with questions any time day or night and to regularly put out interesting training material using humor so that the officers would actually read it. I have become known here for my bi-weekly “legal updates” and that’s all because of Ralph.
I did not find out until a few years ago that Ralph had suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for most of his life, stemming from his experiences as an Air Force soldier in Vietnam. He had been exposed to Agent Orange while he was over there and that had led to a host of medical issues as well. Through treatment at the VA, he seemed to finally be reaching a place where these things were being controlled. In fact, over the last few months, he seemed to be much better when I would speak with him on the phone.
The call I got from his wife, Drusylla, last Sunday morning came as a huge shock as she told me that Ralph had passed away. I am thankful that God arranged it so that Ralph and I had just spoken on the phone the night before his death. I was also blessed to be able to meet Ralph and Drusylla for a lunch during the last Christmas season, something that was very difficult for Ralph to do because of his medical struggles.
I will miss Ralph and our talks. He was one of the few people I could talk to where in one phone conversation we would cover sports, religion, politics, law, and have a lot of laughs doing it. I don’t know that I will ever be able to read all of the books he has graciously given me over the years. I know for certain that I will never be able to repay him for pouring wisdom into my life. I also know for certain that I will see him again one day – and that is the greatest blessing of all.