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Top stories of 2011: Sheriff speaks about tough times, politics ... and his cowboy boots

In early January, Sheriff Al Nienhuis stood before his deputies for the first time.

He wore a suit, because his uniform wasn't completed. He quoted retired Army Gen. Colin Powell. He shook hands with Col. Mike Maurer, and the room burst into applause.

Nienhuis went through a lot in 2011. He weathered criticism that his appointment to the job — after longtime Sheriff Rich Nugent was elected to Congress — was purely political. He completed what many expected to be one of the most difficult budget seasons a Hernando sheriff has ever faced. He dealt with the death of Deputy John Mecklenburg, who was killed in July after his vehicle struck a tree during a chase.

Earlier this month, Nienhuis spoke with the Times about a variety of topics: from how he's been accepted in Hernando to the upcoming election to his mustache to the hardest class he took in school — which might surprise you.

Here is the edited version of that interview:

When you got here, obviously there was controversy, there was some criticism over how you got the job. How long did it take for you to overcome that criticism?

I think it was a process. There wasn't a date that I could say, but I felt fairly early on that people were going to give me an opportunity and see what my performance was.

I also think very early on they realized I cared about the community, I cared about the citizens and I cared about the employees here at the Sheriff's Office. … Probably within the first couple months I felt very comfortable in the community and in the Sheriff's Office.

Was that quicker than you expected?

I would have to say yes, because there was a concern. It's kind of funny. ... Sometimes when talking with people in the organization, they'll come up and they'll say something like, "Boy, we were really concerned when Sheriff Nienhuis came in. We didn't know what he was going to do." Both my wife and assistant are quick to remind those people it was a little uneasy for me also and my family.

It was very quick that we came to an understanding that we worked together. I would say it was a little faster than I anticipated, but at the same time I didn't really think about it every day. I was just doing the job and doing what I thought was right, and I knew that everything else would fall into place.

In a sheriff's election, you're going to have deputies who likely openly support one of your opponents. How do you deal with that?

As long as it doesn't affect their job as deputy and they're not undermining the organization, that's their prerogative. I'm not going to hold that against them.

On a personal level, would it bother you?

It would bother me if they were supporting someone else because of misinformation about me. If the reason they were supporting somebody else is because they were upset at me and the reason that they're upset is incorrect because of miscommunication or something like that, that might upset me a little bit.

But if it's just because they think that somebody else would do a better job or if they're friends with them or something like that, that's not going to upset me at all. In other words, if I have control over it, that might upset me a little bit. If it's something outside of my control, it's not going to upset me.

What is the best thing about this job?

My wife and I have talked a lot about this, and I think it's being able to have a positive impact in the community. I've been given a tremendous amount of responsibility, but I can use that in a positive way.

My wife reminds me on a very regular basis that you can't take that lightly. When you have an opportunity to have a positive impact, you need to do that — whether that's as the chief law enforcement officer or whether it's being somebody who's well known in the community and has the ability to get things done in a positive way.

I think that's been, although a little bit stressful, it's been very rewarding to be able to have that impact.

On the other side, what is the worst thing about your job?

Having to deal with the death of Deputy Mecklenburg and everything that's happened since then. You have a widow and two small children and an agency that's hurting and a community that's hurting. And the heartaches that people have — that's probably the best answer.

I now have a family, an extended family of over 500 employees plus their families, and any time they're hurting it can get to you. It affects you, and there's always somebody hurting in the Sheriff's Office. That's probably the hardest thing.

You mentioned John Mecklenburg's death. That's probably the first major crisis you've faced as a sheriff. How did that affect you and how do you think you handled it?

Well, how did if affect me? It was probably right up there in the top five worst days of my life. I've lost family members, which were tough. But as far as the sense of loss, I think that nobody can — and again this sounds almost like rhetoric, but it's not — nobody can understand, even being second in command, when we lost somebody it was different than being the sheriff. They're now your deputies. They're my deputies, and the sense of responsibility is huge, and so it was a very difficult time.

How I handled it? I don't know. I've been told that I handled it well, but I don't know. That seems almost paradoxical because I don't think you can handle that well. I guess I did okay. … In law enforcement, we're fixers. We want to come into a situation and fix it.

That was a situation I couldn't fix.

You've had a long career and worked some seemingly dangerous jobs. What was the most dangerous moment?

Probably the scariest time was when I was off duty working for the marine patrol and, long story short, there was a scuffle going on in a shopping center. ... And one person at the bottom was yelling that he was being robbed.

In the process of trying to detain the person who I thought at the time was a suspect — I found out later I think it turned out to be a road rage thing — but of course the person on the bottom is screaming that they're being robbed. That's all the information I had.

So the person who was on top started to leave, and in the process of trying to get him not to leave, he was able to get into his car. And I was half in the car and half out, and he's trying to back up, and I'm trying to shut the car off, and he's starting it. And as I'm shutting it off, he's biting my arm. And I'm thinking if I get under this car and he backs out, I'm going to be dead. It was very, very tense until the police showed up and I felt these hands behind me grab me and pull me out of the way.

If you could have any job on earth other than yours, outside law enforcement, what would that job be?

I do like fixing things, handyman-type stuff. … I really get a sense of satisfaction when I fix something rather than having to throw it away and buy a new one. Sometimes, unfortunately, it ends up costing me more than if I would have bought a new one, but I really get a sense of satisfaction in fixing things. So I guess it would be something from a handyman to an engineer, a mechanical engineer.

When I originally started college … I was planning on being an engineer, maybe even an aeronautical engineer, having my pilot's license. I did very well in the math and sciences. I excelled in it. I enjoy math. I've been through fairly high-level math classes. Three semesters of calculus with analytical geometry, but I didn't want to sit behind a desk all day so I went into law enforcement.

And the irony is now I sit behind a desk a lot.

What's the hardest class you ever took?

This will be a funny one — actually, shorthand.

My dad gave me some advice, probably the best advice he ever gave me, and he gave me a lot of good advice. This was even before computers were popular. I mean, in my high school, we had one computer terminal, and they were still using the cards. They were still feeding the cards to program the computer. He told me, he says, "Al, learn to type. You won't regret it." So I actually took two semesters of typing.

Kind of going along with that, I thought taking notes in school can really be tough sometimes to keep up with the instructors when they're talking, so I thought, well, maybe I ought to take shorthand. I got in the class, and I was the only guy in the class. And I felt very uncomfortable. That was a struggle getting through that class. I couldn't stay focused for a couple different reasons, obviously with the other girls in the class and being the only the guy. I definitely felt uncomfortable about perceptions and all those other things. That was by far the hardest class.

Needless to say, I don't remember any of it, and I didn't take it a second semester.

What is something that the general public doesn't know about Al Nienhuis? Not Sheriff Nienhuis, but Al Nienhuis? What is something that would surprise people?

I don't know, I guess I'm a pretty boring person. I can't think of much that would surprise them.

Any vices or guilty pleasures?

I tell everybody my one big vice is food, and, unfortunately, I can't quit that cold turkey. Of course, my wife is a good cook, which is a bad combination. But again, I don't think that's a huge surprise to anybody.

I've noticed lots of sheriffs, and a lot of people in law enforcement, have mustaches. What is it about the mustache and law enforcement?

It never even occurred to me, and I never thought about it. I guess it's coincidence.

I think a lot of law enforcement agencies don't allow anything more than a mustache as far as facial hair. I've had it from the time I got into law enforcement, maybe a little bit before. There's been a couple of times I've threatened to shave it off, and my wife has told me that she would be very upset if I did that, so I guess it's more a case of my wife making the decision on that particular one.

Your cowboy boots ... How long have you been wearing them? How many do you own? And why do you wear them?

I really started wearing them when I came up here. I've had a pair of boots … for 12 or 13 years.

So I have a couple pair. Pretty simple. I have a black pair and a brown pair.

I enjoy wearing them. I think it kind of goes with the position of sheriff. And I guess I wear them because I can. It's one of the few perks I have as sheriff. I get to wear cowboy boots.

Your predecessor here went on to Congress. Do you ever see yourself having political aspirations beyond sheriff?

I would have to say at this moment, absolutely not. If somebody would have asked me a few years ago if I ever thought of being Hernando sheriff, obviously I would say no. I've learned never to say never, but as far as any type of goal whatsoever, it's not even on the radar screen.

I mean I have plenty to keep me busy today. This election is plenty to keep busy for the next year or two, and then of course I'll have four years as sheriff if I win, if the citizens elect to have me serve again.

And also I do look at Congressman Nugent, and I realize he has a very different job, so I don't know if I would want to trade with him right now, even if I had the opportunity.

Editor's note: The Hernando Times this week is publishing recaps of the Top 10 stories of 2011 in Hernando County, as identified by the Times staff. They appear in no particular order.

Top stories of 2011: Sheriff speaks about tough times, politics ... and his cowboy boots 12/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 8:14pm]
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