Valdosta Daily Times

December 30, 2012

Longtime public servant retiring

Kay Harris
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — For 20 years, Ashley Paulk has served in an elected capacity in Lowndes County, first as Sheriff for 16 years, followed by Commission Chairman for the last four years. Come Jan. 1, 2013, his time as a public servant will come to an end.  Or will it?

Paulk ran for the top law enforcement position against Sheriff G. Robert Carter in 1988 and lost to the incumbent. He tried again in 1992 and defeated Carter, but the two remained lifelong friends until Carter’s passing several years ago. Paulk even kept Carter’s daughter, June Ricks, in her position at the sheriff’s department.

“When I came in, I expected that the staff would support their boss in the election. It didn’t bother me a bit. I knew I had to earn their respect on my own,” Paulk said.

With no law enforcement background, he said he relied on two sheriffs in nearby counties as mentors, helping him to learn the aspects of the position that he wasn’t familiar with.

The business side, though, Paulk had down pat.

“The Sheriff’s department gets the lion share of funding from the county. It’s like a business, there’s a lot of money that comes and goes through there, and my business background was tremendously helpful, not only from the budget side but also from the human resource side,” he said.

Paulk’s business experience came at a price — he had to drop out of Clemson University in his senior year to come home and take over the family business, Valdosta Electric.

“My father started Valdosta Electric in 1945, two months before I was born. He eventually became a builder and developer, and left the electric company in the hands of another family member.”

Paulk said his father was in a serious accident that left him disabled for the remainder of his life, and the relative left the business, having accumulated $300,000 of debt.

“I took it over in May 1965 and I was very blessed, had a lot of good work that came our way, and I’m very proud of the fact that in less than two years, we were out of debt.”

Paulk built Valdosta Electric into one of the largest in the country, but the constant traveling took its toll on his family. His wife of 45 years, Ginger, raised their three boys and two girls “pretty much on her own. They’re all great, never had any trouble with them, but they were raised right. I wasn’t around that much, so she did it all herself.”

The Paulks’ youngest daughter is expecting the couple’s 22nd grandchild.

Son Buck runs the pecan business for the family while Trav took over the electric company several years ago. Paulk is still active in both, works every day, and shows no sign of slowing down, even when he’s not an elected official anymore.

While many assume the Paulks inherited the land they farm in north Lowndes County, Paulk says they bought part of it from one of Ginger’s relatives and built the house on Cat Creek Road. Over the years, as other nearby family farms became available, Paulk expanded the pecan operation and now extends into Berrien County as well

For a young man who only spent one year in high school that he wasn’t suspended, Paulk has done well. He said both of his sisters were class valedictorians before he came along, but he did not carry on the family tradition.

Instead, he managed the football team for four years, being too small to play at 100 pounds. Working with Coach Bazemore left a lasting impression on Paulk, especially since one of his suspensions came because he left school early one day at the coach’s invitation to go quail hunting. The principal at the time gave him a three day vacation for it.

Reminiscing about growing up in Valdosta, Paulk appears to know everyone, their mommas, daddies, grandparents, kids and life stories. He has helped out a countless number of people over the years, and even many of those he once locked up still come back to thank him for helping set them back on the right path.

Although it’s obvious Paulk loved being sheriff, he said he felt four four-year terms were enough, and the county needed a strong leader. He won the Chairman’s position and spent the last four years helping the county get through some of the most difficult economic times in their history.

“We’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions, and some people aren’t happy with what we’ve done, but you can’t keep losing money. The trash sites alone operate at an annual $600,000 loss. You can’t raise fees high enough to cover the expenses.”

Paulk said he was blessed with a good staff at the county which made his job much easier. Overall, he said the chairman position was far easier than being sheriff, although at times when citizens raised a ruckus in meetings, “there were times I wished I still had arrest powers.”

Stepping down now seemed the right thing to do, as health issues have slowed him down a little in recent years, but don’t count on Paulk being out of the public eye. He still serves on several local and state boards and he intends to remain very visible and very active  in the community.

As for the rocking chair the commissioners presented to him recently as a going away gift, Paulk said it’s being put to good use, “by the grandkids.”