At the start of his speech, Hernando's top cop for one more day said he would try not to get emotional. He failed. "You guys have been," Sheriff Richard Nugent began, his voice breaking slightly. He paused for a moment and cleared his throat, " … my whole life." "You will be sorely missed," he said. "But you know, nothing stays the same."
First elected in 2000, Nugent addressed the upper ranks of Sheriff's Office for the last time Thursday morning. About 50 people — corporals and above, as well as civilian supervisors — gathered in the training room of the Emergency Operations Center for a regularly scheduled quarterly meeting.
The meeting was also Nugent's chance to offer an official goodbye. He was elected last month to the 5th District congressional seat currently held by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite. His resignation is effective today. Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday tapped Pasco County Undersheriff Al Nienhuis to serve the final two years of Nugent's third term.
Nugent walked in with his wife, Wendy, shaking hands and hugging on the way to the podium. Before his six-minute speech, he introduced Nienhuis.
They would get to work Monday, 47-year-old Nienhuis told his soon-to-be charges, asking them to be ready to take notes. But this day was about sheriff and soon-to-be Congressman Rich Nugent, he said.
"I'm proud to follow in his footsteps," Nienhuis said. "I know it's going to be big shoes to fill, but I'm excited about it, and I've heard nothing but great things about you all and the way you serve the citizens."
Nugent, 59, looked around the room. He was already in his early 30s when he arrived in Hernando County in 1984 after starting his law enforcement career in Illinois in 1972. But Nugent said he "grew up with" many of the people there. He also promoted many of them.
"It wasn't because we were friends; it's because you guys and gals have done a great job," he said.
Nugent said the agency has come a long way since he arrived.
He remembered an exchange with the sergeant who fingerprinted him at the Hernando County Jail when he began work here.
"He said, 'Where you from, boy?' and I said Chicago," Nugent recalled. "He said, 'Well, let me tell you something. We have a different Constitution down here.' I told my wife, Wendy, that I think I'd made a giant tactical error."
Nugent said his predecessor and mentor, Sheriff Tom Mylander, made great strides in professionalizing the agency. Nugent gave credit to his staff for his successful re-election bids in 2004 and 2008.
"It's because of what you do on a daily basis on the street," he said. "It's what you impart to the people who work for you. It's that caring attitude you have. It's about service above self."
More than just a boss to some
Crist's appointment has sparked some complaints of political favoritism. Nienhuis is friends with both Crist and state Sen. Mike Fasano. Nugent had recommended that Crist appoint Hernando Operations Chief Mike Maurer.
Nugent touched on that briefly Thursday.
"What I ask of you now is to give the same respect and loyalty to the new sheriff," Nugent said as Maurer watched. "Do the same things for the right reasons that you've always done. Don't get caught up in the politics."
The farewell was a particularly emotional moment for Chief Royce Decker, who arrived in Hernando from the North Miami Police Department in 1983. Back then, the county had about 50,000 residents and the agency had 14 deputies, and sometimes a day or two would pass without a call for service, Decker recalled.
Decker and Nugent rose through the ranks together as the department grew, and now Decker was watching his longtime friend and boss move on.
"Words can't convey the depth of the emotion felt at such a time as this," he told the Times after the meeting Thursday. At one point, Decker got choked up and had to pause.
"It's one of those eternal moments," he said. "They come and live on forever because you don't forget them. We lived in the moment for a man who has shown devoted leadership in this county."
Asked what the atmosphere in the ranks is at this point, Decker described a general feeling of "waiting" to find out what Nienhuis' philosophy and goals for the agency will be.
"Everyone brings something to move the agency forward," he said.
Decker has a big stake as Nienhuis considers potential changes. During a reorganization last year after the departure of longtime Chief Deputy Michael Hensley, Nugent decided to eliminate the position of chief deputy and elevate the roles of three bureau chiefs. Maurer took over operations, Decker leads law enforcement services and Bill Kicklighter heads the agency's public safety bureau.
Tears of joy for the new congressman
On Wednesday, Nienhuis revived the position of chief deputy, naming Maurer as his second-in-command. Decker said he has yet to find out what that will mean for him, but Nienhuis' decision to tap Maurer helped put some minds at ease.
"It's good of sheriff-appointee Nienhuis to see that people who have served the sheriff for years have the community at heart, and that he wants to maintain that as he comes into command," Decker said.
Sgt. Donna Black, the public information officer who started at the Sheriff's Office in 2003, wiped tears as Nugent spoke.
"Our agency is like a family, so it's like a family member is moving out of state," Black said afterward. "But they are tears of joy for him in his new position, and we know he will have many accomplishments as our congressman."
Nugent will be sworn in as a House member next week. He will spend weekdays in Washington when Congress is in session and return to his Spring Hill home on the weekends.
Before he closed Thursday morning, he logged one more request.
"Keep us safe," he said, smiling. "I'm still living here."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.