• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

Wright retires after 32 years in law enforcement

WOODFORD SHERIFF Wayne "Tiny" Wright, sporting a mustache just as he did the day he began his law enforcement career 32 years ago, puts long-time colleague Versailles Police Officer Jimmy Sewell in a friendly headlock in the county courthouse. Behind them, Deputy Joe Carter enjoys their antics. Of leaving the post he's held since December 2006, and a career that began when he was 21, Wright said, "The job's more than just a badge and a gun. It's the community." (Photo by John McGary)

On Feb. 18, 1985 - his 21st birthday - Wayne Wright put on a uniform. At the end of the day on Monday, a little more than 32 years later, he took it off. Wright, who's been Woodford County sheriff since late 2006, said he's stepping down after a recent meeting with a retirement expert revealed it was to his financial benefit to retire now. That doesn't mean he's entirely happy about it. "I grew up (playing) cops and robbers and I never grew out of it," Wright said on his second-to-last day on the job during an at-times emotional interview with The Sun. "I'm not moving out of town or anything, but there's so many people you meet. It's just like no one comes through that door a stranger." Wright said he'd always wanted to work for the sheriff's department, but first applied for jobs with the Versailles Police Department (VPD) and the former Woodford County Police Department. Then-VPD Chief Robert "Bobby" Brown told Wright he'd hire him, but he couldn't start until he was 21. As that day approached, Wright quit his job with a Lexington security company and, on a day when many 21-year-olds would have been consuming their first legal beer, went to work for the VPD. He also earned his nickname - "Tiny" - an unusual moniker for a man who's 6'4" and in excess of 200 pounds. Wright said fellow VPD officer Tyler Purdy noted that there was a county police officer named Wayne Bradley, and the two Wayne's would eventually show up at the same place. "And they said, 'Well, if someone hollers, 'Wayne,' ... which one would look (over) if we both were at the same scene?', and Tyler said (of Wright), 'Well, he's not tiny.' And from there out, 'Tiny' stuck," Wright said. The hardly tiny Wright graduated from Eastern Kentucky University's police academy and wore a VPD uniform for 10 years until a conversation with then-Woodford Sheriff Loren "Squirrel" Carl. Wright said Carl asked him if he was still interested in becoming sheriff one day, as Wright had told him repeatedly, and Wright said yes. "He said, 'Well, I've got an opening. Come on and get your feet wet,'" Wright said, adding that he took a pay cut to do so. "I always tell everybody, 'I went from a 1983 Crown Vic ... to an '89 Chevy Impala with ... 200,000 miles on it, and I called the car, 'Cupcake.' And everybody said, 'Why'd you name it Cupcake,' and I said, 'Someone's eaten all the icing on it and all I've got is a piece of stale cake,'" Wright said. He joined in part, he said, to take part in community outreach efforts like DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program - and because he'd grown up loving Western movies in which the sheriff was the good guy. When Wright changed uniforms, he also changed the type of work he did - to a point. "The modern sheriff - we're still branded under the way we were established. We still do the arrests. We still collect taxes. ... It has come a long way. I can tell you when I started, you were lucky to have a portable radio and a flashlight in your car. Now we have computers and (other) technology ..." Wright said. "Thirty-two years - it has changed like the flip of a switch." A little more than a decade after going to work for a Squirrel, Wright ran for sheriff (unopposed, as was also the case in 2010 and 2014) and took office a month early when a Bear stepped down. Wright was then-Sheriff John "Bear" Coyle's chief deputy, and Coyle, who won the judge-executive race that fall, is one of Wright's chief fans. "Tiny has one of the biggest hearts of any person you'll ever meet. He was the best chief deputy that a sheriff could possibly have. I hated to see him leave at this point in his term, but I understand. I certainly wish him well. He's a fine, fine person, and I enjoyed working with him," Coyle said. Wright said being sheriff in Woodford County doesn't mean being stuck behind a desk. "We're not big like Fayette County or Jefferson County. I still go out and patrol in that car, I still make traffic stops, I still arrest people. This office is a working office. It's never going to be an administrative office," he said. Wright's time in uniform has not gone without danger, including an incident several years ago in which he was headed home after a social gathering, out of uniform, and encountered a drunken driver. The man pulled a gun on him, which Wright said he was able to wrestle away after reaching into the car and putting the man in a headlock. Years later, he said, the man came by the sheriff's department and thanked him for helping save him from a life that had fallen apart. Wright said he's still approached by students who took part in the DARE classes he administered, and though he doesn't remember every name, he does recall every face. There've been plenty of laughs, too - and not just from audiences at Wright's annual emceeing of the men's pretty legs contest at the Woodford County Fair pageant or a sheriff-laden dunking booth. When Wright was still wearing a VPD uniform and the county was experiencing financial woes, he and a couple of other uniformed jokesters on the overnight shift stuck a "For Sale" sign on the lawn of the courthouse. A hubbub arose, and the powers-that-be wanted heads to roll. "Chief (Brown) brought us all in and he said, 'I know you did it. I can't prove you did it, but I know you had something to do with it.' So we escaped that bullet ..." Wright said with a sigh, adding that if Brown had checked a certain patrol car, he would have found a "Going Out Of Business" banner inside that they'd wanted to stretch between the courthouse columns. "After that butt-chewing, we decided we'd better not put that sign up," Wright said with a laugh. Asked how he'd feel when he walks out of the sheriff's department for the final time as sheriff, Wright paused and said, "Scared," before misting up. "I've worn a uniform the majority of my life. ... Every day, I've put a uniform on. Shoot - all of our marriage, anyway," Wright said, referring to his wife, Tracie. (Their daughter, Brittany, is a state police dispatcher and Franklin County courthouse security officer.) "How do you say goodbye to a dream?" Fifteen minutes later, Wright was out in the hallway, horsing around with longtime friend and Versailles Police Officer Jimmy Sewell. Wright said he's been blessed with good officers and good friends, and that while he's saying goodbye to the office, he's not saying farewell to the place where he grew up. "I will do something else in our community. I love this county. I plan to give back to this community as much as it's given to me. It's the little things: it's Midway, it's Nonesuch, it's Mortonsville, it's Millville. It's the little community festivals we have. ... Millville Hillbilly Daze - I went to school in Millville. That's homecoming for me. ... "Versailles is still Mayberry to me," Wright said. Asked which character in "The Andy Griffith Show" that metaphor made him, Wright laughed and said, "Well, sometimes I'm Andy and some days I'm Barney."

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