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Longtime Davidson Co. sheriff ‘Jaybird’ McCrary dies at 83

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Paul “Jaybird” McCrary (Winston-Salem Journal)

DAVIDSON COUNTY, N.C. — A consummate law-enforcement officer, politician and native son is how friends and colleagues remember Paul “Jaybird” McCrary, the longest serving sheriff in Davidson County history, who died Thursday at age 83.

Paul “Jaybird” McCrary (Winston-Salem Journal)

Paul “Jaybird” McCrary (Winston-Salem Journal)

McCrary spent all but his college years living in Lexington and Davidson County and serving his fellow residents.

He was a two-sport athlete at Atlantic Christian College, playing third base in baseball and fullback in football. He initially planned to be a teacher and coach.

However, the death in 1952 of his father, John, a Lexington police sergeant, convinced him to go into law enforcement to help take care of his mother, Flossie, and younger sister, Alice.

After serving 21 years, as a Lexington police officer and as a state parole officer, McCrary combined his passion for law enforcement and politics by running for — and winning — election as Davidson sheriff in 1974 as a Democrat.

McCrary’s track record for being an effective, caring and tough-minded sheriff enabled him to win re-election three times in a county that has become a Republican stronghold over the past two decades.

“The sheriff in Jaybird’s time could be considered as the most powerful man in the county, and he certainly was,” said Max Walser, a retired Davidson County Schools’ superintendent and retired county commissioner.

“Jaybird knew how to work the precincts, connect with the people to earn their votes.

“But once in office, he knew his duty was to serve all the people, and he did. He mentored me and he mentored people on both sides of the aisle.”

Although McCrary drew criticism at times from county Republicans for his mixture of law enforcement and politics, he defended his tactics in a December 1988 interview with the Winston-Salem Journal.

“We try to choose people who will first of all do the job, but also people who people like and who can influence,” McCrary said in the interview. “It helps us politically, and it helps us solve crimes.

“The sheriff in all counties is the closest elected person to the people. I don’t vote the ticket for ’em, but I will tell them how I feel about individual candidates and let them make up their own mind.”

McCrary’s work and influence in law enforcement carried well beyond the Davidson borders.

McCrary helped create one of the state’s first community-watch programs. In 1986, he helped persuade legislators to provide eligible sworn law-enforcement officers with a special separation allowance upon retirement.

He was selected as president of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association for 1984-85, and in 1985, he was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by Gov. Jim Hunt.

His reputation carried as far north as Massachusetts, where Gov. Michael Dukakis called upon McCrary to vouch for his law enforcement record as part of Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign.

Although McCrary retired as sheriff in 1990, he wasn’t through serving the county.

McCrary was elected convincingly to four terms in the N.C. House for District 37. Among his accomplishments was serving as co-chairman of the subcommittee on Justice and Public Safety.

Among his legislative accomplishments were helping provide compensation for victims of crimes, reducing class sizes for elementary education, raising teacher salaries, and assisting economic development initiatives for small businesses.

McCrary retired from the legislature in 2000, having never lost an election.

If all that hadn’t been enough to keep McCrary busy, he found time to serve as manager of the Davidson County Fair from 1992 to 2005.

McCrary is survived by his wife of 60 years, Jean, a son and two daughters, three grandsons, and three granddaughters.

A visitation will be held from 5-8 p.m. Saturday at Davidson Funeral Home, 301 N. Main St. in Lexington. Funeral services will be conducted at 2 p.m. Sunday at First United Methodist Church, 310 S. Main St. in Lexington.