Reprinted from the Dallas Morning News, Sunday, Oct. 18, 1998
Sheriff J.B.. Smith works the hotel conference room like a stand-up comic, reducing a staid federal court convention to helpless laughter with his tales of Texas lawmen.
But the man at the microphone in a Beaumont interstate hotel is no typical veteran of the rubber-chicken circuit. His stories of country cops and bubba bad guys are the stuff of his daily life. "I look at things a little weird," he tells his audience. " You gotta remember: I run a jailhouse.
J.B. Smith, professional speaker, eighth-grade dropout, cotton picker and sharecropper's child, licensed hypnotist, ballroom dance instructor and country DJ, sometime bus driver and one-time salesman of Mary Kay cosmetics, is the longtime sheriff of Smith County.
In five years, the 55-year-old sheriff's routine has taken him from Tyler to Little Rock, Phoenix, Dallas and dozens of towns in between. For up to $3,000 per appearance, he has spun yarns for bankers and businessmen, taxidermists and travel marketers, even a convention of pet cemetery owners.
He speaks free for anyone who asks in his East Texas county, where he is considered the most popular and colorful politician around.
"He wants to know everybody and everybody to know him. He wants everybody to like him, and with his personality, they usually do," said Smith County Judge Larry Craig.
Others in professional speaking say no one else in the country has parlayed police work into a professional humor routine. While speakers might pose as characters such as Will Rogers or Mae West, said Steve Straus, past president of the North Texas Speakers' Association, "J.B. Smith is that character. He is a real sheriff. He is from Texas.
I think he's unique." Dallas agent Betty Garrett, who books speakers nationwide, flatly calls the sheriff "the best-kept secret in Texas."
Sheriff Smith says his pastime is an indulgence in the country storytelling he has always loved and a chance to shake assumptions that "police humor" is a contradiction. "This business can be serious as a heart attack. It can make you very critical, very cynical in a hurry. You see the most horrible things people are capable of doing to each other, but I like to focus on the fact that I've seen some of the best, and frankly, some of the funniest," he said. "I think what I do is just a way of letting people know there's another side to law enforcement: a funny side. "But you know the main reason I do it? Because it's fun. "
Others say the sheriff s sideline, like his six terms as the county's chief law enforcement officer, is remarkable to anyone who knows where he is from.
"The more you know about J.B.'s background, how he grew up, the more you can appreciate where he is now," said Tyler lawyer F.R. "Buck" Files Jr.
Sheriff Smith was one of six children raised by an alcoholic sharecropper stepfather near Sumpter, Ark. He says he never met his real father and tracked him down only after he died. His childhood memories are framed by a succession of rent houses, ragged places where wind rattled the newspapers on the walls and ice coated the floor knotholes on winter mornings.
His family survived on beans and corn bread. Education, like electricity and indoor plumbing, was a luxury for town children; he quit school in the eighth grade to work the cotton and tomato fields of southeast Arkansas. "None of my family ever graduated from high school. I'm the only one that ever left Arkansas," said the sheriff, who has an outhouse beside his home as a reminder of his past.
His ticket out came courtesy of the U.S. Navy. He got a GED while his aircraft carrier cruised off Vietnam.
When in homeport in San Diego, he went downtown to stare at the dancers in the windows of a dance studio. He said he finally got the nerve to go in, only to be ridiculed as a hopeless hick when he ran out of lesson money. He practiced before a mirror and got good enough to win contests and teach ballroom dancing.
It was typical of a lifelong attraction to anything new, the urge behind his leaming everything from speaking to hypnotism and auctioneering. "I never really learned how to read well; I still to this day can't spell. I can't write script except to sign my name," he said. "But I've always been excited about doing something new."
He left the Navy after marrying but stayed in California to be a police officer. "I always wanted a job that had some respect to it because none of us had any growing up," he said. He became a San Diego policeman in 1965, moved to Duncanville several years later to be closer to home and joined Tyler's police department in 1970.
"A lot of people said this guy would never even make probation," said Chief Deputy Johnny Beddingfield, then a Tyler detective. "Well, he came here and he got himself elected sheriff in six years. " Sheriff Smith was like nothing the county had seen, Chief Beddingfield and others said.
With night-school degrees from Tyler Junior College and the University of Texas at Tyler, he was the best educated sheriff ever.
He was the first Republican.
And, thanks to an unfortunate knack for butting heads with some of Tyler's highest and mightiest, he also was the first sheriff in years indicted and booted from office. The charges ranged from patrolling apartments in exchange for free housing after his divorce to driving a county car to socialize in Shreveport. "The indictment, I probably deserved every bit of it. But it was a moral issue. It wasn't things that were against the law. I just went middle-aged crazy," Sheriff Smith said. "I made some terrible mistakes. "
Unable to find police work while fighting the charges, the sheriff drove trucks and buses. On a bet, he even sold Mary Kay cosmetics - a fact that still prompts giggles in Tyler beauty shops. "I sold the hell out of Mary Kay and had a ball. I was kidded all the time about driving a pink pickup," he said.
Federal Judge William Wayne Justice ruled that the ouster effort was retaliation. Sheriff Smith was cleared and beat three opponents without a runoff for his next term. He has since had little or no opposition and few critics in a county where even people who worked to oust him in his first term are now regular contributors. "It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," said Wade French, former chief federal probation officer for East Texas. "In politics, you've usually got enemies. But he works under the policy that he'd rather win a friend than an argument. "The only people I know that might not like him are locked up in his jail, and actually, most of the people in his jail like him, too."
Outside Smith County, the sheriff and his department are among the state's best known, with fans from Austin to Washington. "Sheriff Smith is one of my heroes," said Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. "Nobody I know is tougher on criminals, and nobody outside the FBI and the DEA is better equipped. In that regard, Smith County packs more firepower than some small countries."
The department has grown from 28 to 238 employees. Deputies joke that the sheriff commands a navy, a cavalry and a tank division. Its boats and Jet Skis patrol county lakes. Its horse patrol regularly helps agencies across Texas handle crowd control. Its well-regarded tracking dog unit is so large that Judge Justice, longtime overseer of Texas prison reform, once jokingly threatened to invite the hounds to file a kennel class-action lawsuit.
Then there are his U.S. Army surplus armored personnel carriers, Bubba I and Bubba 11. Both came free, adding to the sheriff s legend for scavenging everything from donated inmate uniforms to surplus sanitary napkins, a bus and even an 18-wheel truck. Bubba 1, a behemoth with a smiley face and the slogan "Have a nice day," became an international TV network news star in the Republic of Texas standoff near Fort Davis. It was hardly the department's first brush with fame.
An East Texas media fixture, the sheriff has long been a regular on everything from TV public service announcements to guest stints as a prime-time weatherman. His efforts to promote his department always include a big dose of his earthy humor, and visiting reporters usually get a wild "Bubba" ride at the department work farm, a spread that, like the sheriff s home, lies on Blazing Saddles Ranch Road. "Never before have I seen anybody with the relationship with the news media that he's got," Chief Beddingfield said. "Things that we used to say, 'I hope the news media don't find out about,' he calls and tells 'em to come out and see. His philosophy is, you don't hide anything."
Throughout Smith County, even strangers greet the sheriff as "J.B." David Maitland, federal court clerk for East Texas, recalls seeing the sheriff mobbed "like a rock star" at Luby's. "There was just this parade of blue-haired people," he said. The sheriff is also a hugely popular local speaker. It was after a local speech that a lawyer told him "you oughta take that on the road," the sheriff said.
He joined a speakers' group and began getting paid bookings.The sheriff now gives more than a hundred speeches a year and will go as far as Idaho for paid appearances this fall.
But he said he has no interest in a speaking career; he prefers his daily adventures as sheriff. "I get to help more people in 24 hours than a lot of folks do in a lifetime," he said. "Every day is totally different. Everything that walks through the door is different." What walks through often ends up in his favorite speeches.
A mixture of Hee-Haw and TV cop drama, they are a kind of performance art on the absurdities of being a Texas cop. He acts out showing off during a drug raid by leaping through a window, only to hit burglar bars. He crouches to tell of squatting behind a patrol car in a shootout, only to have the rookie he warned to take cover jump in the car and drive it away. He includes the exploits of Chief Deputy Beddingfield, a big, old-fashioned lawman with the improbable nickname "Butter Pickle."
He offers observations on parents and children, juxtaposing his rancid reaction to one of his two sons' new earrings with his own mother's observation that anyone who wanted to look like Elvis so bad "don't have all his fruit jars on the shelf in the great storeroom of life."
He always delivers the same message: the joy of letting a good story fly and sharing a laugh -especially at your own expense. "You go out there and mess up, you pull some Bubba stuff, and that makes a story. Nothing goes the way it's supposed to. You wind up doing some crazy, chaotic things, and later on, it becomes funny," the sheriff said. "It's amazing to me to be able to tell that story, with a good punch line, and look out to watch people die laughing."