Two things I can tell you about Mike Cross: He was a John Wayne fan, and he was a man of faith.
To see the sheriff's love for John Wayne, you only had to step into his office at the Scott County Justice Center. There — like at his office at Oneida City Hall when he served as the town's police chief — John Wayne memorabilia was present on every wall and desk, much of it depicting Wayne in one of his roles as a lawman.
You might say that Mike Cross wore his admiration for John Wayne on his sleeve. It wasn't something he shied away from.
Likewise, he didn't try to shy away from his faith. He wore that on his sleeve, too.
Sheriff Cross was long a man of faith, I'm convinced, but he underwent a bit of a change early in his tenure as Scott County's sheriff. He didn't make a big deal of it; he simply said, "I'm turning over a new leaf." But you could see it in his actions and in his conversation.
Not long after, he helped organize a prayer meeting of Scott County's elected officials, religious leaders and fellow believers. His reasoning was simple. Amid a rash of deaths of Scott County citizens by overdose, and new meth labs that seemed to be popping up faster than he and his officers could stomp them out, drug abuse was a war that could be won only with the intervention of a power higher than himself.
"The only thing I know to do is pray," Sheriff Cross said at the time. Later, he would add that the prayers "are absolutely working."
Some weeks later, in a private conversation, I asked him bluntly: Do you believe these prayers are the answer or is this just about an inspirational image for the public? It was a question that might have offended some, but Sheriff Cross was one of the last people you had to worry about being offended by trivial matters.
And he was equally blunt in his response.
"We don't have any other choice," he said. "This problem is too big for us to tackle on our own."
In this modern era of ACLU harassment and too often negative reporting by news media with axes to grind, an elected sheriff standing hand-in-hand in prayer with ministers and church-goers on a public square is somewhat unusual. An elected sheriff admitting that he cannot solve the problems facing his jurisdiction without the intervening hand of a divine God is just about unheard of. Mike Cross's approach was a stark contract to the typical approach.
But Mike Cross was not your typical sheriff.
Although Sheriff Cross entered the political arena in 2010 to seek the office of sheriff, he was never very good at playing politician . . . at least not in the sense that most of us would define politicians. With Mike Cross, you got what you got, with no false pretenses or faux airs. He didn't tell you what he thought you wanted to hear; he didn't let public opinion influence his position. And he never considered his job as sheriff a job that placed him above those around him. When he was elected and I called him for comment, his first response was, "This is not my sheriff's department. This is Scott County's sheriff's department. This is the people's sheriff's department."
Mike Cross was as atypical a politician as he was an atypical sheriff.
It was that atypical approach that won him the support of the hundreds of officers who worked for him or with him over the years, as well as the respect of thousands of citizens who didn't vote for him in 2010 but who would've probably voted for him in 2014. People appreciated his down-to-earth, straight-forward approach.
I appreciated that straight-forward approach. I never had to wonder about where Sheriff Cross stood on an issue; any issue. On one particular occasion, when he was still chief of police in Oneida, he called to let me know he was upset about a story that ran in the paper. The story was critical of OPD's approach to the state's public records laws. It did not give him an opportunity to respond. In hindsight, he had a right to be mad. And, boy, was he ever mad. He chewed on my ear like no one outside of my father ever has. But before our conversation ended, he asked if I had been squirrel hunting and if I had any luck. That was his standard approach. That was why he was respected by most who knew him.
Although he was very much in the public eye, Sheriff Cross was an intensely private person. For that reason, it was easy for folks whose only encounters with Sheriff Cross came when he was investigating an incident, helping his officers with traffic control at an accident site or addressing County Commission or the town council to think he was a bit callous; a bit unpersonable, even. But his officers and his friends would be the first to tell you: no one had a bigger heart, or a desire to make his community a better place, than Sheriff Cross.
During the course of many conversations in his office or mine or in his cruiser during a late-evening drug operation of some sort that he sometimes invited me along on, I came to see Mike Cross the lawman as Mike Cross the man — a man as committed to his family as he was to his job; as committed to his community as any one person could be.
Through those years, I came to trust Mike Cross enough to know that if he told me something, I could take it to the bank. And after 10 years — 10 years that included stories about lawsuits being filed against his department, of mistakes his officers made that allowed a jail inmate to escape, or other unflattering events — it was telling that the only time he was angry with me was the time I did not report the story fairly. For those two reasons more than any other, I deeply respected him. If there's one thing I've learned in my years in this line of work, it is that negative stories — though an unescapable part of the job — typically include the risk of offending someone.
But typical wasn't what you got with Mike Cross.
He was an atypical sheriff, but he was as good a sheriff as Scott County could have hoped for. And an even better man. He left an indelible mark on this community, and he left an indelible impression on all who knew him. It is cliche, and it has been said many times, but it's true: Mike Cross will be truly and sorely missed.