CHICAGO — Whether it was allowing visitors to disfigure his portrait or holding fundraising sleepovers in his southwestern Illinois jail, longtime St. Clair County Sheriff Mearl J. Justus was known for his dry humor and savvy yet sometimes unconventional politics.
He considered his career-appropriate name — Sheriff Justus — a badge of honor and earned a reputation for creativity and charity during his nearly six decades in law enforcement, including 30 years as sheriff. But he also was known as a practical joker.
He once sent notices to fugitives on his outstanding warrant list, telling them they were eligible for a pair of sneakers at a new shoe shop, then had deputies waiting to arrest them as they came by, recalled his longtime friend and successor Sheriff Rick Watson.
"Of course, that only worked once. But let me tell you, that was hilarious," Watson laughed, noting that Justus had named his alleged shoe store Nabber. "He liked to do his job. But he liked to have fun doing it."
Justus died Tuesday evening, exactly a week after stepping down as sheriff and a day after Watson officially took over the post. In a phone interview from his office in Belleville, Watson said his mentor and friend of 35 years passed away at a local hospital. He was 81.
Watson said he visited Justus at the hospital about an hour before Justus' wife called him with news of his passing. He described Justus as a loyal, fun-loving man who loved his job.
Justus' demeanor matched his colorful name. For years, his official website showed him modeling a sombrero, showing off a picture of his parking spot, admitting a fondness for the Three Stooges and letting visitors disfigure his portrait.
Before he moved to a retirement village, he lived with his wife in a rent-free apartment atop the building that housed his department and jail. He figured that was where he needed to be.
Justus' retirement came about two months after he had his gallbladder removed. At the time, his wife said he was quite sick — yet he'd wanted to hold out for a few more months so he could mark 60 years in law enforcement.
"I told him, 'Don't worry about it,'" his wife, Audrey Justus, told The Associated Press last week.
Justus was raised poor by his grandparents and didn't finish high school, but he earned his GED before being recruited in 1953 by the mayor of tiny Cahokia to be a part-timer on the Illinois village's police force.
He spent 22 years as Cahokia's police chief before jumping into politics in 1982, when he was elected sheriff. He went on to win all his other elections.
The sheriff held "Slumber in the Slammer," a fundraiser for a women's crisis center where every $100 donor got a night behind bars. He once arranged a cataract surgery for a woman who'd lost her savings to a robber, and helped free a man wrongly convicted of killing a drug informant. He also sold ads on his patrol cars to help fund education programs.
"That guy has a knack for public speaking and a flair for comedy. You never knew one moment to the next what was coming out of his mouth," Bob Hertz, the sheriff in neighboring Madison County, told the AP last week.
But, Hertz added, "he doesn't beat around the bush and will tell it like it is, based not only on his inner fiber of being a cordial man but also his vast experience."
Justus, a former president of the Illinois Sheriffs' Association, didn't drink or smoke. He had stared down health issues in the past as an insulin-dependent diabetic who had open heart surgery in 1996.
He rarely carried a gun, explaining once that he found it bulky and it "tears my clothes up." And at least once a week, Justus inspected his jail — some call it "Hotel Justus" — and ate there while often donning odd neckwear, such as a tie adorned with smiley faces with lipstick smooch marks.
"In this business, to keep from going off the deep end, you need that humor," Justus once said.
Associated Press writer Jim Suhr contributed to this report.