MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Before an estimated crowd of more than 2,000 mourners, Montgomery’s Garrett Coliseum served as the stage where emotional stories were shared of the kindness and humbleness of slain Lowndes County Sheriff John Williams.
Williams was killed in the line of duty on Nov. 23. More than a week after his death shook the county he cared for, his funeral had to be moved out of the county because, as one pastor put it, there weren't any churches there large enough to hold the crowds.
The funeral included a mix of song, tribute and recollections of a man whose nickname - "Big John" - was the only thing more familiar to citizens than the personal cell phone number he handed out if they were in need.
One speaker drew on the old “Batman” television show to tell his story. Another spoke of Williams’ deep knowledge of Lowndes County, comparing it to that of the fictional Sheriff Andy Griffith and his supreme knowledge of Mayberry.
Perhaps most emotional of all were the tales recounted by Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham, who couldn’t get through his multiple stories without drawing laughter for his impersonations of his late friend.
“When you search for words and you, and you search what do you want to say and how do you want to say it, and you sit back and you look at the obituary. You look at the family. You look at all the friends. You look at the community. You look at Lowndes County, and you think about what you just lost,” Sheriff Cunningham explained. “Wow. And the only thing I can think about is June 14, 1957; it was his date of birth. And we love to put that little dash in there. And we talk about the day he left us. Only thing I can talk about is what happened before that dash came in, because he was my friend.”
“Me and Big John went everywhere together,” Cunningham explained. “It was so good to be able to be with somebody that had a sense of humor that kept me laughing from the time we leave to the time we get back, even if he lost his luggage at the airport.”
Cunningham recalled fond memories including Williams’ love of food, and he promised he was going to stop Monday at the Lowndes County store where the sheriff loved to buy some thick, burned fried bologna sandwiches. “And I’m going to wrap in some foil, like he did,” before belting out another impersonation.
While there were moments of light-hearted laughter, Cunningham admitted it was hard to stand there speaking of his dear friend. “We went to other law enforcement officers’ funerals together,” he explained, before a long pause to collect himself. “Now we’re having his.”
“So if you know Sheriff Big John, you’re gonna miss him," Cunningham explained after recalling a story. “I may ride through Lowndes County and just blow my air horn just so I can let you all know that he’s still being remembered.”
U.S. Senator Doug Jones also spoke briefly and presented an American flag to Sheriff Williams’ widow that was recently flown above the U.S. Capitol in his honor.
There were proclamations from the Alabama House of Representatives, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Dist.7) and others professing to the good nature of Sheriff Williams.
And while she did not speak, Gov. Kay Ivey was among the dignitaries who visited the coliseum to pay her final respects. Her office tweeted a photo of her standing at the sheriff’s casket.
Following the funeral, a funeral procession carried the sheriff back home to Lowndes County and his final resting place in a plot next to his parents at McQueen Cemetery. About 300 were at the graveside service. The program included a 21 gun salute, Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, and a flyover.
We’ve talked a lot over the last week about the impact Sheriff Williams had on the entire community, the close ties he had with so many people including those who are planning his funeral and burial. They say today will be different, a more difficult day than any they’ve planned in a long time.
“It’s totally different than just embalming or doing preparation on someone I don’t know," said Karl Bell. "For a personal friend of mine, pretty much like a brother to me and my wife, it was really difficult. But I knew I had to be the one to do it because I knew exactly how he should look and knew everything about John.”
Sheriff Williams’ body lay in repose Sunday at Hayneville Middle School. Lowndes County Schools and Lowndes Academy will be closed on Monday as he’s laid to rest.
“Big John was the type of person that demanded respect and he gave respect,” Lowndes County resident Jay Coleman. “He was a guy that, although he was the highest law enforcement officer in Lowndes County, he wasn’t above the people. He was always among the people and that’s why everybody knew Big John. You can look at the outpouring and love of the people who are here now as a representation of the type of person that Big John was.”