Former Sheriff W. D. ‘Cotton’ Nichols dies, 80 years old

Published 11:07 pm Saturday, August 1, 2009

If you didn’t know W.D. “Cotton” Nichols, it’s a sure thing you missed a character.

Just ask anyone about the former Dallas County sheriff who served 20 years before retiring.

Nichols, 80, died early Saturday morning at home with his beloved wife, Helen, daughter and three grandchildren at his side.

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The Nicholses were married for 61 years.

“He loved her so much,” said grandson John Randall Sheehan. “He put her on a pedestal.”

In his retirement years, the grandchildren said Nichols could spin some good stories about his days as an assistant chief at the Selma Police Department and those years spent as Dallas County’s chief law enforcement officer.

Nichols was born the son of a contractor in Selma. He slipped off to join the Navy when he was just 17 years old and served on a destroyer before returning home.

Nichols worked with his dad in the construction business and opened up a service station on Broad Street, just about where Fred’s Flower’s is located.

Nichols kept those jobs while he began his career in law enforcement — a career that would see 37 total years.

Selma Police Chief Wilson Baker hired the young Nichols onto the police force. It was there the young man gained a reputation for a cool head, firm grasp of people and an inquisitive nature.

“Everybody respected him because he was honest and because he really cared about everybody,” said Kathryn Tucker Windham, an old friend. “I don’t think he did a cruel thing as an officer of the law. He was just a good man.”

Windham visited Nichols not long ago. They talked about old times and people they knew and loved.

“We just let somebody die with a whole head full of history that we did not record,” she said. “He was a good reporter. He really was. He watched things and he knew people and he followed events and he was as honest as a man could be. I just admired Cotton Nichols. I really did.”

His grandchildren — Sheehan, David Nichols and Ashley Smith — have scrapbooks with yellowed clippings of Nichols’ days as sheriff. The photographs tell myriad stories.

There’s one of Nichols standing at a pond at the back of the Dallas County Jail facing down Leroy, an alligator Don Meeks put there back when the gator was not much more than a baby. Some of the jailers told detainees if they tried to escape, ‘ole Leroy would get them, said David.

No record exists of any inmate falling prey to Leroy, who wound up in the Birmingham Zoo after Nichols retired as sheriff and the current sheriff, Harris Huffman, was elected to office.

Then there’s the tale of Nichols, who heard about a bank robbery in Marion on the police radio. The sheriff always kept his pistol in the trunk of his car. Nichols quit wearing it after he was appointed sheriff by Gov. George Wallace to fill Baker’s unexpired term after Nichols’ mentor died.

Nichols was in Marion Junction and stopped at a store. He noticed a car at a gas station that looked like the car described in an all-points bulletin. Nichols eased over to the car and saw a brown paper sack with money in it on the passenger’s seat.

David said his grandfather went over to the official sheriff’s car and got his pistol out of the trunk. Nichols hid behind the door and waited for his suspect to come out.

“He said he stuck that pistol in his back as far as he could and said, ‘You SOB, don’t move,’” David said.

Nichols never lost an election, granddaughter Ashley said.

“He knew people and people knew him,” she said.

In the years after his retirement, Nichols enjoyed his family and his home at Lake Martin. He had a pontoon boat he loved to ride on the lake.

The grandchildren said he never forgot his mentor, Baker, and credited him with becoming a good lawman. Nichols was not without his temptations and after eight months in office as sheriff, he told a reporter, “I have been tested. I have been tested from inside and from places you wouldn’t think.”

Dallas County Probate Judge Kim Ballard summed up what most people thought about Nichols, “Cotton was a great guy. He was a great sheriff and a great friend. I’m certainly going to miss him.”