Growing up on a tobacco farm in Nash County, Gordon Gay realized at a young age that there “might be an easier way to make a living. From there, he says he just did what God led him to.
That path ended up in Garner. There he met his wife, spent the bulk of a nearly 3-decade career in law enforcement and retired at the age of 50 thanks in part to 27 months of saved-up sick days -- he said he never used one.
“It pays to show up to work,” Gay said.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Chief Brandon Zuidema, Town Manager Hardin Watkins and council members spoke glowingly of his service to the town.
“He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” Watkins said shortly before the meeting. “He’s the kind of guy who can pull you over and write you a ticket and you end up thanking him.”
Gay spent 14 years as a detective with the police department. For the last few years he has been a patrol supervisor and took over what Zuidema called a “mess” of a quartermaster situation. The quartermaster takes care of making sure officers have the uniforms, gear and supplies they need.
Gay characterized himself as a jokester, and when he stepped to the microphone to make some remarks at least one officer could be heard bracing for Gay to tell a joke or two.
“I’ve told Chief (Percy) McIver that the best decision he ever made was hiring me,” he said, drawing laughs. He later said: “I try to bring a bit of humor to the job, mix things up. A lot of people kind of see me as a jokester in a way. I have fun coming to work.”
Lt. Len Hatcher called Gay a “unique character.” Hatcher said even in his early 20s he was obsessively organized, and compared him to the OCD detective from the TV show Monk. He said officers, with their “sick sense of humor,” would move things on his desk and tease him about cleaning his car.
Not that Gay could be truly rattled.
“His idea of losing his cool was, ‘darn it,’” Hatcher said. “Him losing his cool is what for most people would be mildly upset.”
Gay also exuded that demeanor when interacting with the citizens he was sworn to protect. Hatcher said he never heard a citizen complaint about Gay. Given the length of his career he called that “almost impossible.”
“He is a super guy. He’d do anything in the world for you,” Hatcher said of the officer he described as deeply religious. “He treats people how they should be treated. He doesn’t care if they’re a mayor or a homeless person.”
Gay took pride in treating every case the same, too, saying that “all cases were important to me.” He also said he cared just as much about clearing an innocent person as he did about catching the guilty.
“It’s a terrible thing to incarcerate someone that is innocent,” Gay said.
Pressed for cases that stood out among the hundreds he worked, Gay cited a break-in in which the family pets were murdered. Ultimately, police caught the perpetrators; Gay said the crime had been part of a gang initiation.
A few years later, he was the first to interview Samuel Cooper after police pursued and arrested him following a 2007 Garner bank robbery. Gay managed to get a confession out of Cooper as well as some additional information, such as a hiding spot for another gun and a mask, using more than a decade of investigative interview experience. Gay also determined that Cooper was dangerous during the interview. It wasn’t until Raleigh police connected him to several unsolved cases that he knew just how dangerous.
“I had no idea that he had execution-style murdered five people,” Gay said.
Farming to police to who knows
Gay grew up near Spring Hope, and attended Bunn High School. He began to think during high school about a career in law enforcement. He said he had been considering government work, and ultimately he saw it as a way to contribute to the community by serving others.
“I thought the main priority was that it was God’s calling for me. That’s what I was ultimately led to do,” Gay said.
He attended classes in Nash Community College’s criminal justice program. He briefly worked for Alcohol Law Enforcement, but soon after shifted to the Wake County Sheriff Department. He took a non-sworn job there for a couple years before McIver hired him in 1988.
Like most police officers he started on patrol. One day at work around 1996, he ran into another town employee at the Senior Center. Cheryl McCloud worked as a parks and recreation superintendent. They dated and eventually married. Cheryl Gay currently works as the parks and recreation director for the Town of Carborro. He has a step-son who teaches in Hanover County, and an adopted daughter that attends Liberty University.
It was around that eight-year mark that he also received his promotion to detective. He would remain in that role until new Chief Zuidema shook up the department in 2010 with personnel moves. That was fine with Gay.
“You kind of miss (investigations) at first, but I’ve been in that position for a period of time so I was ready for a change,” Gay said. “You get burned out.”
Hatcher recommended Gay to Zuidema for quartermaster, given his organizational tendencies.
Like many retirees, Gay plans on enjoying his initial time off, with little plan for the long-term future. He said he and his wife intend to travel a bit. Key West is on the destination list. The Civil War buff – he dabbles in battle re-enactments in his free time – also plans to visit the National Cemetery in Philadelphia..
Gay also likes four-wheeling on the family’s farm-land back home. He also has a Chinese pug named Timmy, whom he calls “one of the family.”