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‘The ultimate Southern gentleman’: Retired Muscogee County Sheriff Gene Hodge dies

Sheriff Gene Hodge discusses an inmate altercation at the Muscogee County Jail on Nov. 5, 1998.
Sheriff Gene Hodge discusses an inmate altercation at the Muscogee County Jail on Nov. 5, 1998.

Retired Muscogee County Sheriff J.E. “Gene” Hodge, who led the sheriff’s office for almost 20 years, has died.

He was 85.

Hodge was appointed sheriff in April 1980, upon Sheriff Jack Rutledge’s death, and voters repeatedly elected him afterward until he retired in August 1999 to lead the internal affairs office of the Georgia Department of Corrections, a job offered him by longtime friend Jim Wetherington, then the corrections commissioner.

Wetherington, who long served as Columbus police chief and later was elected mayor, confirmed Friday that Hodge had passed away at his home.

“He’d been very ill for a good while,” said Wetherington. Hodge was under hospice care and living with a son, Wetherington said.

Hodge was sheriff at the same time Wetherington was police chief, and though the two agencies sometimes had conflicts, their leaders always were able to resolve those difficulties, Wetherington said: “We were always able to sit down and work those out.”

It helped that the two men’s wives were close friends, and the men related by marriage. Hodge’s wife Sandra was the stepdaughter of Wetherington’s brother, Wetherington said.

“We enjoyed a good relationship,” the former mayor said, and that was well-known to their subordinates. “Everybody knew that Gene and I had a special relationship…. I loved that man. He was a good man.”

Citywide Columbus Councilor Judy Thomas said Hodge worked with her on Wetherington’s mayoral campaign in 2006.

“He was always the ultimate Southern gentleman,” she said. “He was polite to everyone who walked through that door.”

He would regale other campaign volunteers with tales of his time in law enforcement, she recalled: “He was just a delightful storyteller.”

Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters, who worked in the sheriff’s office before becoming an attorney, city councilor and later mayor, said Hodge worked his way through the ranks before heading the office.

“He worked all aspects of the sheriff’s department,” Peters said, adding that when Hodge became sheriff, he was an outspoken advocate for his employees: “He really fought hard for the budgets.”

But through it all, Hodge maintained an easygoing demeanor, and focused on the work before him rather than the politics of the office, Peters said.

“He was a workhorse, not a showhorse,” Peters said. “He was totally law enforcement.”

Hodge’s commitment to his employees was evident in a September 1998 interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, which focused on jail overcrowding, an issue Hodge said came to the fore in 1987 as the jail population ballooned.

“We didn’t really have adequate staff at the time we started filling up, and we haven’t kept up since. Now, with the severe numbers and the pressure it puts on our facilities and the tension that comes about, it’s a real burden on the staff who are having to deal with it on a daily basis,” he told the newspaper.

“They’re under terrific pressure. I think we have been able to handle it, but it’s been a terrific amount of pressure. If we didn’t have a real good staff, it would be a worse situation…. It’s a matter of trying to do a job as it should be done, and with some relief for the staff, trying to keep us from getting caught in a situation where it’s going to cost us twice as much to do something that we haven’t done already.”

Current Sheriff Donna Tompkins went to work for Hodge when she began her career: “Gene Hodge hired me when I was 19 years old,” she said.

She started as a civilian employee working at Columbus Recorder’s Court before asking to be transferred to the jail, to become a corrections officer.

Working for Hodge was “like working for your daddy,” she said. When she asked about the transfer, he looked at her and with fatherly concern asked, “Are you really, really sure you want to do this?”

Then-Chief Deputy Jim McLendon was there, and assured Hodge that Tompkins knew what she was getting into, having seen jail inmates come through Recorder’s Court. Hodge then agreed, perhaps reluctantly, she said: “He was a little worried.”

Hodge was always open and accessible, she recalled, and she learned from his example: “He was very personable. You knew you could talk to him…. He was kind. He was friendly.”

The jail always served inmates chili dogs on Sundays, and if he had no other obligations, Hodge came to eat with the workers there. “That was kind of his way of staying in touch,” Tompkins said.

Hodge’s oldest son Rett said his father also visited the jail every Saturday morning for breakfast, and the son often tagged along.

His father’s reputation was not overblown, he said: His personal life was a reflection of his professional conduct.

“Literally the guy just did not do wrong,” Rett Hodge said. “It was bizarre, almost.... If he said he was going to do it, it was going to get done. He was a man of his word.”

The sheriff’s full name was Jarrett Eugene Hodge, and the son said he has the same name, but goes by “Rett” instead of “Gene.” Gene Hodge’s wife Sandra died in 2006. Besides Rett Hodge, he is survived by a younger son, Randy Hodge.

Rett Hodge said his father had Alzheimer’s, but did not experience the combative disorientation some sufferers do. “He had a very, very gentle soul,” Rett Hodge said. His father became less communicative as time passed, but with occasional surprises.

“He would still laugh at certain things he would hear,” the son said. “He would say a full sentence out of the blue sometimes.”

On one occasion, former Taylor County Sheriff Nick Giles called just to check on his father, Rett Hodge said, and the son warned him not to expect a long or lively conversation.

He was wrong.

When his father heard who was on the phone, “his eyes bugged out and he got excited,” the son recalled. “He talked to Nick Giles like it was 10 years ago.”

Funeral arrangements had not been set Friday, but the services likely will be held at Northside Baptist Church, with a color guard and other honors reserved for a longtime law enforcement leader, Rett Hodge said.

According to a 1995 Georgia General Assembly resolution honoring Hodge on being elected president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, Hodge joined the Muscogee sheriff’s office on Jan. 1, 1961, and was promoted to chief deputy Aug. 1, 1972, just eight years before becoming sheriff.

The resolution said he served on the state Organized Crime Prevention Council and on the Georgia Board of Corrections, where he was on the Crime and Punishment Committee studying prison overcrowding and parole policy.

He also served as president of the Georgia Sheriffs Youth Homes, on the executive board of the Georgia Correctional Association, and on the National Sheriff’s Association Crime Prevention and Youth Committee.

He also was a member of the Columbus Exchange Club and a board member of the Columbus Regional Chartered Council on Child Abuse.