Retired Durham County Sheriff Roland W. Leary, 83, had cancer but died Tuesday of a broken heart, his stepson says.
Leary’s wife, Gwen, 80, died from kidney cancer in January.
“I really do believe it was a broken heart,” stepson Mike Pickett said. “The doctors told him this prostate cancer has not gotten to a point that we see in later states where people die from it. It really was just grief.”
Clements Funeral Service will conduct a visitation at 1105 Broad St. in Durham from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday.
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A public funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Durham, with the burial at Ebenezer Community Baptist Church in Raleigh.
In his final years, Leary was a servant to his family, his church, Park View Baptist Church, and his community.
“There are elected officials, and there are people who get things done in government,” Pickett said. “He was both of those, but for the last four years he was certainly the latter.”
Leary left behind four stepchildren and four grandchildren, whom he loved to take to Durham Bulls baseball games and with whom he shared his love for the Duke University Blue Devils.
“He was always so kind and generous to (the grandchildren), and that really meant the world to us,” said Pickett, 45 of Raleigh.
Leary, a Durham native, attended Oak Grove High School and served in the Korean War.
His law enforcement career began with the Durham County Alcohol Beverage Control where he was promoted to chief in 1974. He chased bootleggers in northern and eastern Durham County, according to information provided by the Durham County library.
Leary almost didn’t win the sheriff’s race in 1982.
He finished a distant second to incumbent Sheriff William A. Allen in the primary. A Sheriff’s Office scandal emerged a month before the run-off election, and Leary won the office by a landslide.
By his last election in 1990, Leary’s 15,700 votes were three times more than the closest competitor.
“It is a somber day around the Sheriff’s Office,” said Sheriff Mike Andrews, who worked under Leary and continued to seek his advice after being elected.
Leary set the Sheriff’s Office on a path to modernization and community service that Sheriff Worth Hill, from 1994 to 2011, and Andrews have continued to build on, Andrews said.
Under Leary’s leadership, the Sheriff’s Office moved toward building a fleet of take-home cars and began the Basic Law Enforcement Training Academy, one of the first training programs in the state for deputies, Andrews said.
Leary initiated a program in which deputies worked in schools under the DARE substance abuse prevention and education program, as well as the Sheriff’s Office Search and Recovery Team, which continues to respond to emergencies across the state
Listening to the larger community was the most significant lesson Leary passed on, Andrews said.
“You have to look at the total aspect of the office, not only the men and women who work for you,” Andrews said. “But you have to be able to listen to those outside of the office who live in the community.”
Leary resigned to pursue other interests in 1992 with two years left on his term.
In 2000, he received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, presented to outstanding North Carolina residents who have a proven record of service to the state. Leary, who attended Durham Technical Community College, served on the school’s board from 2002 to 2004.
He was a member of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission. Leary was also a member of the Durham Shrine Club, Triangle Shrine Club, N.C. Law Enforcement Officers Association, American Legion Post No. 7, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 2740, Durham Fraternal Order of Police, Urban Ministries, Coalition of Battered Women, the Homeless Shelter Board, Board of Advisors of the War on Drugs, Durham Council on Alcoholism, Durham Masonic Lodge 352, the State D.A.R.E. Board, the Eno River Association, the Animal Protection Society, and the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, according to a Sheriff’s Office press release.
“My years of experience in law enforcement and my affiliation with these organizations have given me a broader perspective of the needs of the citizens of Durham County,” Leary once said of his commitment to community service.
News researcher David Raynor contributed to this article.