Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd: The Man Behind the Badge
By Donna Kelly
In an occupation with higher than normal career burnout and divorce rates, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd makes beating the odds look easy.
His law enforcement career and his marriage to the former Marisa Ogburn started out about the same time 41 years ago. Within a four-month span in 1972, the Lakeland native married his high school sweetheart, enrolled in college and took a job as a dispatcher with the Sheriff’s Office. Together they worked to raise a family while pushing his way up the organizational chart to colonel. In 2004, Judd realized his life-long dream when he was elected to his first term as sheriff. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2012.
He doesn’t take the job lightly, nor does he take it for granted.
“It’s an awesome responsibility. It’s an honor to serve in the community,” Judd says. “I love it. I love it every day.”
He’s received his share of awards along the way – including the Polk State College Distinguished Alumni Award, the Boy Scouts of America Distinguished Citizen Award, and the Callyo’s Leaders in Online Child Protection Award – not to mention national media exposure for his hard-nosed, outspoken views on pornography and strip clubs, bullying, and pedophilia.
Currently, he serves as the president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association. He also sits on committees and boards of directors of several organizations on the local, state and national levels.
While confident in his ability and honored to serve as sheriff, Judd doesn’t take credit for his success.
He gives that to his faith, his family, and his friends.
Judd has been known to take parents to task for failing to instill life skills children need to be successful adults. Perhaps this is because, at age 59, he fully understands the worth of lessons he learned from his own folks, Martha and Grady Judd, Sr.
“My parents were the greatest influence on my life,” he says. “They raised me to be a Christian.”
Although Judd has had a number of mentors throughout his career, his father, a retired service manager with Tomlinson Oldsmobile Cadillac, is his hero. Not only did the elder Judd share his affinity for hunting, fishing, and camping, but his moral values, too.
“He taught me to say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ to go to church on Sunday, to become a responsible citizen,” Judd says.
He also learned his work ethic from his father. “He believed if you’re going take a man’s money, you give him a day’s work. He taught me the value of a dollar and how to work for a dollar. He taught me discipline,” he says.
“I learned every bit of my work ethic from him. When I get home I continue to work. A 16-hour day is not uncommon for me,” says Graham Judd, a father of seven children in his blended family.
Growing up, Judd delivered newspapers and mowed grass to pay for costly items he wanted, like a pool table and motorcycle. He worked as an ambulance attendant before he was in high school.
His parents taught him to be responsible, to give back to the community, and behave responsibly.
“To misbehave was out of the question,” Judd says.
In addition to behaving and working hard, Judd says his dad also taught him to be compassionate and nurturing.
Not Too Young
Grady Judd may be tough on crime, but he’s a softy when it comes to his wife. He still gets a sparkle in his eye when he talks about the woman he decided to marry the first time he saw her. Judd met Marisa Ogburn just before their senior year at Lakeland Senior High School. They married about three months after graduation in 1972. He was already working as a dispatcher for the Sheriff’s Office.
Forty-one years, two children, and nine grandchildren later, the Judds are still going strong.
“There were some who said the marriage wouldn’t last, that we were too young,” Judd says, a smile tugging at his lips. “But we grew together. We love each other. We have a Christian home.”
Marisa Judd describes her husband as funny, compassionate, generous, kind and loyal. Her voice is thick with joy when she talks about him.
“He’s everything you’d want in a husband, friend, or sheriff,” she says.
She believes their faith and family enabled the marriage to not only survive but thrive despite the stress of his demanding career.
“Even though he wasn’t always able to be at church with us, he always wanted us to go. He had a strong faith, so he wasn’t led astray like he could have been,” she says. “And we were surrounded by family who supported us.”
While her husband echoes these sentiments, he also explains how his wife is the strength behind his career and the family – from keeping the brass on his uniforms polished to making sure their sons, Graham and Trae, had everything they needed, to her sincere understanding the demands of his job.
The demands of the job are many. At night, Judd is often up late answering emails and he’s been known to work on a laptop from a hospital room. There are calls in the middle of the night and during family vacations. Yet, he says, she never complains. Her only request is that he calls home if he’s going to be out late.
“The secret? I think she’s the secret.” Grady Judd says. “The rock and pillar of our family is not me. It’s Marisa. She dug in and said, ‘We’ll make this work.’”
A Family Affair
Long before he became sheriff, Judd worked long hours, and was often inaccessible to his family when he was working undercover. As was promoted through the ranks, his public exposure increased with his responsibility, adding new challenges to the family.
Graham Judd, 33, says his mom and dad were partners in parenting brother, Trae, and him.
“Growing up, he was a cop and he was doing cop things,” says Graham Judd. “He’d disappear days at a time for work purposes. We just knew dad was at work and he’d be home in a couple of days. We understood that some days he had to get the bad guys.”
At that time, Grady Judd was also working as an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida and Florida Southern College to earn enough to enable his wife to stay home with their children. Yet he found time to coach his sons’ t-ball teams. Graham Judd also played basketball and football.
“I don’t think he ever missed a game,” says Graham Judd, who owns Graham Pressure Washing and Paint. “He did what he had to do for his job and putting the bad guys away, but he never put work before his family.”
Grady Judd is more visible than any sheriff in Polk County history and this is a good thing, says Winter Haven Police Chief Gary Hester, who served as Judd’s chief of staff before retiring in 2010 and joining the Winter Haven Police Department.
“I don’t think he’s controversial. I think what he stands for is what the overwhelming number of folks in this country embrace,” says Hester. “Some folks try to make him controversial. He’s consistent.”
Judd’s comfort with the media adds dimension to fighting crime and encourages other departments to do the same, Hester says.
“He has embraced a partnership with the media. A lot of folks in government and in police departments view the media as their enemy,” he says. “Grady uses the media as a resource. It’s how you solve a crime. It’s a mechanism to communicate with the citizens you’re serving and to help solve crimes.”
It also puts Judd and his family in the spotlight.
Graham Judd says the family largely takes his father’s celebrity status – and the criticism that sometimes comes with it – in stride. But he wants to set one thing straight.
“Some people think Grady Judd is out for himself or Grady just wants to be in front of the camera,” he says. “That’s false. Grady Judd just wants to do what is best for people. He doesn’t manage from a political standpoint. He manages from a right and wrong standpoint.”
While family members are cautious of what they say and to whom they say it, they also know the sheriff must do what he believes is right in any given situation.
“We handle it very thoughtfully, very prayerfully, very courageously,” Graham Judd says. “You just can’t let the critics get to you.”
At the same time, Marisa Judd says family members are amused by her husband’s popularity. They know when they are dining out or shopping with him, it will take longer because folks want to stop and chat.
“We know when we go out that he is everybody’s sheriff. That’s just part of being out,” she says. “We’re happy that he’s popular and we’re proud of him.”
His kind and compassionate side comes out during these impromptu conversations.
“In news conferences, he’s tough. He’s about what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong,” Marisa Judd says. “He cares about people. His attitude has always been that I work for the people. That’s not something he just started when he was elected sheriff.”
The sheriff takes criticism in stride.
“I wake up each morning to do my dead level best to make the best call – but I don’t look to the polls to determine what I do.”
His decisions are based on what he believes is in the best interest of the people who live in Polk County, and whether or not it is the right thing to do.
“Sometimes I don’t like a decision but I have to do it,” he says. “Doing what’s right isn’t always easy but doing what’s right allows me to sleep at night.”
It’s a Matter of Faith
A Bible always sits on Judd’s desk in his office overlooking the county’s public safety complex, not only a sign of his faith in God but an oft-read foundation for his guiding principles.
“My faith means everything to me,” he says.
His faith enables him to deal with the difficult situations he faces in life, in his job.
“Why babies have cancer, why babies are beaten to death by their daddies – with all that goes on, you have to have faith that God’s in control because otherwise the world doesn’t make sense.”
His decisions are not only based on facts, figures, and circumstances, but also Bible-centered principles and prayer.
When he wakes each morning, Graham Judd takes with him guiding principles he learned from his father.
“He taught me to pray before you make any decisions and that works. I’ve tried it,” he says. “Dad once told me that there is no gray area between right and wrong. A gray area only exists when people attempt to justify wrong actions. That’s been a guiding principle.”
“I get up every morning and ask the Lord to give me the strength and wisdom I need. Every evening I ask for forgiveness,” he says.
This faith is what gives Judd the ability to juggle the demands of his job and cope with what he experiences in the course of doing it, says his long-time friend, Pastor Jay Dennis of First Baptist Church at the Mall.
“There’s a faith said that I’ve never seen waiver. That has been a constant for him, no matter what he’s been through,” Dennis says. “His faith has given him a solid foundation to enable him to do his job.”
A man known for holding others accountable for their actions, Judd also demands this of himself, Dennis says.
“Everything I’ve seen Grady ask of others is something he demonstrates. I’ve never seen him ask anyone to do something he doesn’t do,” Dennis explains. “He’s very disciplined and spiritual, and that keeps him accountable. He has some very good and Godly people he has surrounded himself with.”
Dr. Louis S. Saco, chairman of the board and CEO of Watson Clinic, who has known Judd and his family for years, agrees.
“Grady has a genuine character, outstanding principals, and solid integrity,” says Saco. “He is someone, who in the thick of whatever problem you are dealing with, you want by your side.”
“Plus, he’s the only person I know who can throw a great opening pitch at a Detroit Tigers spring training game while wearing cowboy boots,” Saco added.
Rumor Has It
Where does he see himself in five or 10 years?
“Sheriff of Polk County,” he says. “I’ve been asked if I have interest in holding political office. You’re not supposed to say ‘never’ but I think I can make a better contribution to the people of Polk County as sheriff than in Congress.
But there has been conversation about it and one ardent admirer created a Facebook page called, “Grady Judd for Governor of Florida. It boasts 4,400 likes. The page, however, carries the disclaimer that it is not affiliated with Grady Judd or the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
“I’ve been told that I have the personality, drive, and determination,” he says.
Judd has thought about the future.
“There may come a time when I’m too old to do this job. I’ve created my own drop program,” he deadpans. “I want to be here until I drop.”
At the pinnacle of his law enforcement career, Judd is comfortable with who and where he is in life.
“I’m really not a complicated person. What you see is what you get. What you see here is what you see at home,” he says. “I don’t live separate lives. I love people. I love my job. I love my family. It just makes a life worth living.”