Harold Ray: An Unlikely Start to be Legendary Sheriff
By Brandon Presley
I’m pretty sure if you listen close enough you can still hear those cowboy boots walking in the halls of the Lee County Jail in the wee hours of the morning when everything is still. I know that I can still remember the exact sound of his voice on the radio as a teenage dispatcher. Strong and deep, he would say,” Lee-1 to Lee S.O.” For y’all that don’t know law enforcement lingo, the Sheriff of the county’s badge number is #1 and “S.O” stands ‘Sheriff’s Office.” That break in the silence on the radio made every deputy sit up a little straighter and we all knew that the Sheriff was out working. He was always out working and that would eventually be the reason we lost him twenty years ago this week.
My uncle, the late Lee County Sheriff Harold Ray Presley was a gentle, kind, strong and grounded man who’s epic story ended way too early on July 6, 2001, while protecting the people of Lee County. In classic Harold Ray fashion, he was going to be where the action was and was going to be the leader of the pack that hot July morning which would be his last. His rise to be the highest law enforcement officer in Lee County was not one of careful life preparation for the top job, it was really the opposite. The truth is, Harold Ray as young man probably thought the last place that he ever would be was on the right side of the law. In those days he and my daddy fought and drank at every bar in Lee County. In those days, no one would have thought Harold Ray Presley could become Sheriff of Lee County and attain the status of a legend among law enforcement.
On his first day as a Deputy Sheriff, he joked that he had never seen the front seat of a patrol car. In those early years, Uncle Sam sent him to the jungles of Vietnam, he never finished high school and returned to his beloved East Tupelo to work with lifelong friend Buddy Palmer at his grocery store. Luckily for us, and unfortunately for many criminals and drug dealers, his story didn’t end there, because in the late 1970s, Harold Ray got religion. He said that when he met the Lord and put down the bottle, Miller Lite lost so much business in Tupelo that they had to fire a truck driver. He decided to get his G.E.D. and when Sheriff Jack Shirley offered him a job, he took it and went through the police academy as a middle aged man. Five years later, he would be elected Sheriff and go on to be re-elected time and again. There is no doubt in my mind that, but for the bullet that took this giant from us or the voters rejecting him at the polls, he would still be working. Because Harold Ray had, all too well, seen the tragedy of alcohol and drug abuse up close and personal, he felt it was his mission to do his part. He did it until the end.
On this 20th anniversary, I’ll go to his grave and spend a few moments thinking about the good he brought into my life. My daddy (his brother) was murdered when I was eight years old and Harold Ray stepped in the gap and let me tag along and run his first campaign for Sheriff. Until the day he died, he was a constant sense of comfort for me and of protection for the people of Lee County. His story is one of a comeback with some major help from above. As tragic as his murder was, he ended well and achieved heights he never would have dreamed. At his funeral, Bro. Wayne Thorn read a poem that he was inspired to pen when heard of Harold Ray’s death. “Admired by many and hated by some, Harold Ray would take whatever come. Then came July 6th that final day, Harold Ray Presley was called away.” Twenty years later we still miss this giant.
Brandon Presley is the Northern District Public Service Commissioner and nephew to the late Lee Co. Sheriff Harold Ray Presley