STEPHEN SMITH: Music Man: Former Sheriff Wise Still Loves to Play
These days, Jim Wise, former Moore County Sheriff, has more than enough time to focus on the details of his life, past and present.
"That snowstorm we had in 2000 shut off the electric," he says in a dawdling South Carolina drawl, "so I got a generator. It cuts in automatically when the electric goes off."
Today he's having a new solenoid installed on the generator.
"I don't want to get caught like that again," he says. "Pretty soon it'll be getting cold."
Wise retired as Moore County sheriff more than nine years ago, but he keeps up with the news -- and he's philosophical about his years in law enforcement and the present state of the county and country.
"You never get used to it," he says. "It's still upsetting when you hear about police officers who've been shot, like in the incident in Florida. One officer who had three kids was killed and another wounded. And then a student goes into a school -- I think it was in Wisconsin -- and shoots the superintendent."
Wise grew up in South Carolina and moved with his family to Laurinburg in the 1930s.
"We lived there until the 10th day of 1939, and then moved to Hamlet," he says. "I worked there until I took a job as police chief in Pinehurst."
He then served four terms as Moore County sheriff.
Wise in a widower now -- his wife of more than 60 years passed away a few years ago -- and he recently had to put down their 20-year-old dog.
But if there are potentially empty moments in his life, they've been filled in part by his love of music. Wise is a multi-talented picker of guitar, dobro, banjo and mandolin.
And when he cradles his guitar and begins to pick out the notes to the Red Stewart-Pee Wee King version of "The Tennessee Waltz," it's darn near impossible to picture him as having done anything else, including meeting the demands of public office.
"I was waltzing with my darling/to the Tennessee Waltz."
Wise bought his first guitar when he was 14 years old.
"I saved up $14 to order it from the Spiegel catalog," says Wise. "I'd go to the depot every morning and wait for the train which ran from Wilmington to Charlotte. When that train came in, I was there to see if that guitar was onboard. I finally saw them take it off the cart -- it was in a big cardboard case -- and they carried it inside and I ran in and got it.
"That was a big guitar, and I wrestled with that thing down the street for a half mile to where I lived. I got it home and learned to play it. My nephew has it now."
Wise has three sons -- "the three Wise men," he calls them -- and two of them play.
"I used to play a good bit," he says, "but I don't have much of a chance to play with other people now, unless the family is around."
Among his prize instruments is a Gibson mandolin with a long family history.
"I was living in Rockingham and went into a pawn shop, and that thing was hanging there," he says. "I didn't have the money to buy it. So my mother and father came, and I told them about the mandolin. They went to the pawn shop and bought it for me. They paid $14 for it. That was in 1936, back when there was nothing to do but walk the streets or sit down under a tree and make some music."
Wise's wife put the mandolin in their son's crib to give the child something to play with, and the instrument got thrown on the floor and broken into pieces.
"I sent the mandolin back to Gibson," Wise says, "and they said they could sell me a new one cheaper than they could fix it. My oldest son took it to a music shop in Charleston, and a man fixed it for me. And he did a good job, too."
The trees outside Jim Wise's living room window are beginning to sere orange, red, and brown. It's autumn again. And he sings in his gentle drawl.
"I remember the night/and the Tennesse Waltz/only you know how much I have lost."
Stephen Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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