Years ago, the city of Wilmington operated an old jail.
The previous Wilmington City Building, now torn down, housed a jail in the back of the building, with dark gray walls and matching bars. The jail could lodge about a dozen prisoners — usually suspects in misdemeanor thefts and break-ins — or in some cases speeding violators.
There was a time when drivers cited for speeding who lived outside Clinton County were required to post cash bond set by the Wilmington Municipal Court.
While working as a young city police officer in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon to see a “speeder” brought in on the weekend from the interstate unable to post a cash bond, and be incarcerated until court the following Monday.
One Friday evening a young family from Wisconsin was brought into the police station. The driver, a young father, had been clocked speeding on the interstate, and didn’t have enough money to post bond.
“What time is it?” the young father asked.
“It’s about six-thirty,” I replied.
“I need to be in Nashville by midnight. My father died and our family is en route to his funeral,” he said.
The bond was set at approximately $47 — $47 the young man didn’t have.
He called the phone number for the bondsman, but the bondsman was out of town.
The young man turned to his wife and said, “You must go on to Nashville. We have no other choice. I will try to find someone to post my bond.”
His wife was sobbing and their children were crying. I felt sorry for the family. They were all frightened, including the young man.
I walked the man to the cell block and he sat down on the metal bench.
Later that evening as my shift ended I thought about the young man in the cell. I knew he had never been in jail before and I was concerned for him.
“How are you doing?” I asked him.
“Not so good,” he replied.
We continued our conversation for a few minutes. “I have been estranged from my dad most of my life,” he said. “I haven’t talked to him in years. In fact, he has never seen my children.”
The man went on to say his dad left the family when the young man was about 5 years old, and he had only seen him once during the last 30 years.
“My aunt from Tennessee called yesterday afternoon to tell me my dad had died,” he said. “I really didn’t want to go to the funeral,” he continued.
The man’s expression grew sadder. He told of how his dad used to beat his mother when he was drinking, and finally left home after many attempts to obtain sobriety.
He said his mom had worked three jobs to support the family when they were young. She had died several years ago, and he said he knew she would want him to attend his dad’s funeral.
“I was going out of respect, more for my mom than my dad. There was also something inside telling me I needed to say goodbye to him. Now, I am sitting in this stupid jail,” he said.
I walked back out front just as the phone rang. It was the man’s wife. She was in Cincinnati and had stopped to get the kids something to eat. I told her that her husband was doing OK, but the judge would not be in until Monday. I asked her to call back in about 30 minutes.
Fortunately, the Wilmington Area Ministerial Association maintained a “transient fund” for individuals who found themselves without food or shelter. In this case, the local ministers agreed to post bond for the young man.
His wife called back from Cincinnati and was soon back in Wilmington to pick up her husband, and continue their trip to Nashville.
A week later, the young man walked through the front door of the City Building. He was emotional, and looked at the floor when he spoke.
“I didn’t like being in jail, but it gave me time to think about my dad,” he said. “I grew up loathing him for the hurt he caused my family and me. I could never forgive him. But as I sat in church and heard the eulogy from his friends, I realized they were not only describing my father, they were describing me, too. He cared about others, and I found out he had paid for my mom’s nursing home care as she died of dementia.
“When the jailer opened the jail doors and let me out, I realized I had been released from two jails, the one in Wilmington, and the self-imposed jail I had placed myself in for most of life, and for that I am thankful,” he said.
We shook hands and he headed out the door back to Wisconsin.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.