If Lindy Pendergrass ever took a vacation, none of his colleagues can remember it.
Many of them do remember how he started his 32 year tenure as Orange County Sheriff in 1982 at a point in his life where many others would consider retiring. They recall how he kept a police scanner beside his bed just in case any emergencies happened when he actually received a full night’s sleep.
“I can only think of him being out of the office for Sheriff’s Association meetings or illness,” said Don Truelove, former Major of Operations with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “There were a couple of back surgeries while he was sheriff. Other than that, no vacations.”
Pendergrass died on Sunday, six days after his 85th birthday. Since January, Pendergrass had been in and out of Duke Hospital and two rehabilitation centers because of heart problems. In the latter days of his tenure in 2014, his eyesight also deteriorated.
“I don’t think Lindy ever slept when something bad was going on,” said Bobby Collins, who worked as Chief of Investigations under Pendergrass. “He would catch cat naps, then he was right back to work once things started turning.”
Regardless of whether it was the Alvaro Castillo shooting at Orange High School in August 2006, the Wendell Williamson shooting spree in Chapel Hill in 1995 or the Kathryn Ennis missing person case that turned into a homicide investigation over a span of three years starting in 1986, Pendergrass is remembered by his colleagues as someone who covered every detail of an investigation while guiding his younger colleagues.
“The work was what he got the greatest joy out of,” Truelove said. “He told me 100 times that when a citizen put a vote in the ballot box for him, it was a contract. That contract was he was going to do his level best to do the best job he could do for them.”
Pendergass was Sheriff of Orange County from 1982 until his retirement in 2014. At the time of his departure, he was the oldest sitting sheriff in the state.
Pendergrass defeated Bobby McCullock to become sheriff. Before that, he served 25 years with the Chapel Hill Police Department, starting as a patrolman. He later rose through the ranks in the investigative division, ultimately winding up as Major.
Truelove met Pendergass, then a sergeant, in 1970 at CHPD. After Pendergrass took his new job in Hillsborough, he asked Truelove to join him.
“There were a few terminations when Lindy took over,” Collins, who was briefly moved to patrol duty, said. “But he met with us and said he wanted to work with everybody. He made everybody feel pretty good.”
When Pendergass was sworn in, there were only one roadworthy car at the sheriff’s department. Two officers would man every vehicle, which had to be left at the office at the conclusion of a shift. The next group of officers would have to pick up the vehicle in the condition it was left in.
Pendergrass immediately started trying to build a stronger fleet of vehicles, which required patience.
“One of the things he advocated right away to the county commissioners was a take home car for all of the deputies,” Collins said. “He argued that if a deputy had a car at home, and if he went to, say, the grocery store, if he got a call he had to respond to it. He advocated for a take home fleet because every officer would take care of that car and treat it as his own.”
“The county was begging to be patrolled with more concentration of officers,” Truelove said. “That was his first charge. Of course, as time went on and support from the county commissioners became more available, he was able to get more modern equipment.”
Pendergrass’ work ethic was so thorough, he often expected his closest workers to show the same dedication.
“Sometimes that could be difficult,” Truelove said. “But he was totally committed to serve the people who elected him. He expected those that worked with him to have that same dedication.”
“He wanted you to work,” Collins said. “He expected you to do what he did. That was his main course, to do what he did. He exemplified that by staying on the job all the time. He just expected that of his people.”
As long as his employees stayed committed, Pendergrass would make sure he was loyal to them to the very end.
When Collins retired in 2008, he received a celebration at the Big Barn, where he received a portrait of all of his co-workers through the years.
In 1997, Tommy Hamlin retired as a lieutenant after 30 years. Weeks before another packed retirement ceremony at the Big Barn, Hamlin’s family had a Jack Russell Terrier named Porky that vanished after three years residing at their home, never to return. Hamlin vowed never to get a new dog for fear of growing too attached to another one during his retirement.
No one told Pendergass, who surprised him with a newly born, female Jack Russell. Hand delivered inside a wooden basket with “S-140” (Hamlin’s squad car number) written at the top, the terrier was named “Lucky,” who spent the next 16 years looking after the Hamlin family every bit as much as vice versa.
“He was the epitome of a public servant,” Truelove said.