1972 election revisited: You think this year's field is crowded?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016
In this Cassville Democrat file photo from August 1972, two unopposed Democratic candidates and one defeated watch a tabulation board of their party's precinct votes. From left, Bob Vance, unsuccessful sheriff candidate; Rufus Miller, state representative hopeful; and Don Reed, unopposed southern judge (now commissioner) candidate.

12 Republicans, 12 Dems, independent battled to become Barry County sheriff

For more photos from 1972, visit http://www.cassville-democrat.com/gallery/27746Election seasons come and go with regularity. Most are forgettable. Every now and then, one stands out, possibly for the people involved, or the circumstances or the outcome.

In Barry County, one benchmark election stands out against which all the others have to size up.

It was 1972, and time to elect a sheriff in Barry County. In recent years, the county court, now called the county commission, had boosted the sheriff's salary to $17,500 (nearly $101,000 in today's money) -- a rather handsome civil service salary. A lot of interest surfaced as filings started on Jan. 3. Then incumbent sheriff Abe Dummit decided not to run for re-election. More candidates came out of the woodwork. By the time filings closed on April 25, 12 Republicans, 12 Democrats and one independent had filed for the job, a record beyond any previous vote, or any since.

The election became a free-for-all of sorts, especially right before the primary vote on Aug. 8. The November vote turned out somewhat predictably, but it was hard to tell how the primary would resolve, with candidates vying from every corner of the county.

Dummit bowing out of a re-election bid was more predictable than one might think. An older man with 17 years in the department, Dummit followed the very popular Bill Hemphill, who had held the job from 1952 to 1968. Beyond Hemphill, however, it's worth noting that back to 1920, no sheriff had served more than one consecutive term. Only Troy Wilson in the 1940s had even served two terms, and there were two sheriffs in between his stints. One Democrat won election, Mal Johnson, in 1936, in a year where FDR's New Deal was popular but FDR did not carry the county in November. Johnson, however, died in office in 1938. The only Monettan who ever served as sheriff then took over, County Coroner F.C. Callaway, and he served until the next county election.

It was never clear what drove the abundance of filings. Cassville Democrat editor Bob Mitchell offered several speculations.

In mid-February, Mitchell reported, "A veteran political observer in Barry County summed up the current filings for sheriff subject to the primary election in August rather appropriately this week. 'Looks like candidates will be thicker than fleas on a dog's back,' was his observation."

By March 15, 15 candidates had filed. Mitchell declared "There should be no scarcity of matches with which to build a fire this year, candidates for sheriff alone in Barry County will be providing campaign-type folders of the firemakers in sufficient quantity to keep the entire populus well supplied." By then it was already the largest race by then in history of the county.

By April 15, Mitchell speculated that warm weather in March had prompted turkeys to mate early, leaving them disinterested in hunters' calls. Fishermen reported little success compared to other years. "So, with the turkey season possibly fouled up, and fishing not what it should be, why wouldn't you assume that total or 20 candidates filed for sheriff of Barry County is being affected by the atmospheric conditions or some strange phenomena that has cast a spell over the area."

Seeing a big election in the offing, the county judges took a recommendation from Clerk Chester Snider, consolidating polling places for the first time since 1963. Judges had previously dropped the number of polling places from 42 to 35. This time, they fell to 29. Today there are 16. According to the late Emory Melton, Clerk Gary Youngblood said, at that time precinct committeemen and women served as election judges, because they knew the local voters. Election procedures ran much more loosely at the time.

Candidates represented most corners of the constituency. On the Republican ticket, there were two from Monett: Charlie Tate, a 10-year officer with the Monett Police Department, and Howard Bounous, then 36, a four-year military veteran who claimed to have wide support. From Purdy there was Cecil Clayton, then 31, the only candidate who never purchased a newspaper ad. Jim McNeill, from Butterfield, campaigned against stopping cattle rustling and was willing to pay a $250 reward for capturing suspects out of his own pocket.

Farther west was Vernon Still, who lived in Liberty Township, west of Exeter. A World War II veteran and three-year deputy in Carroll County, Ark. Still had one of the most focused campaigns, identifying drugs as a major problem he planned to tackle. "I'd like to re-activate the once-famous Barry County Sheriff Posse [one of Hemphill's legacies]...composed of dedicated men, [who] can be very beneficial in emergencies, such as the search for missing persons etc."

W.R. "Dude" Mattingly Jr. also hailed from the Exeter area. The undersheriff for Dummit, Mattingly ran ads showing confiscated drugs and alcohol. A marriage counselor for 23 years, a youth counselor for 15 years, Mattingly campaigned that he would be "a working sheriff." From nearby Wheaton came candidate Wilbert Shockley, another World War II veteran with law enforcement experience.

From the Cassville area came H.G. Parsons, an Army veteran who taught for a year in Exeter and had two years of study under his belt in law school at the University of Arkansas. Dan Spyres, a four-year Navy man in the 7th Fleet, had worked under both Hemphill and Dummit. Lloyd Vaught, from the Mineral Township, east of Cassville, was a lifelong county resident, a livestock farmer and engaged in the trucking business.

From the east end of the county came Jim Blackburn from Shell Knob, who had 20 years experience as a correctional officer in federal prisons, who called for a complete reorganization of the sheriff's department. Rounding out the field was Jim Reavis, from Crane Creek Township, a Korean War veteran with law enforcement experience.

Among the Democrats was Vergil Pugh from Purdy. Pugh campaigned on earning the public's respect and "enforcing all laws." He even had a youth contingent campaigning for him, arguing his fairness, another potential tip-of-the-hat to Hemphill, who left the sheriff's office to continue as the chief juvenile officer.

R.A. "Gus" Tatum, a two-term county assessor from Butterfield, also campaigned on fairness and his familiarity with the entire county. Tatum's final ad ended with the endearing line: "O boy, competition sometimes causes liberal offers. For Tuesday Aug. 8, I would accept a whole pie, or cut in, or at least give me your friendship."

From the Cassville area came Lige Frost, who pledged to provide "24-hour service to any part of the county," a challenge to any standing sheriff that remains to this day. Frost also pledged "to give all the people of Barry County equal service and protection," implying that perhaps others did not, or had not.

Ray Burnette, an officer in the Cassville Police Department, was in the race, as was Robert "Bob" Vance, a World War II vet and Cassville resident who campaigned as "not a politician." Jim O'Neill of Cassville, a 30-something stockman, promoted himself as "young enough to work hard at the job" and pledged "to bring better law enforcement to the area, something of which he is capable of accomplishing."

Perhaps the most unexpected candidate as a political newcomer was 21-year-old Debbie Johnson of Eagle Rock, who had law enforcement training in Kansas City. She called for establishing three eight-hour shifts in the office, having patrol cars available to respond at all times and reactivating the Sheriff's Posse.

From the other side of the county came LeRoy Perkins, 54, from Jenkins, who had 20 years experience with the Los Angeles Police Department, a turkey farmer who also had a job at Boys Town in St. James, which he quit to campaign more actively.

Other candidates were Jack Nave of Eagle Rock, Kenneth Ruark from Ash Township, west of Washburn, and Bill Daugherty of McDonald Township, south of McDowell. None of those three bought a newspaper ad.

When the votes came in, the big prizes were Monett and Cassville as the major population centers. Shell Knob was only 10 years old and did not represent a significant concentration of votes yet.

The record of how the votes spread in the precincts never reached the newspapers. Precinct tallies appear only in the minutes of the county court. While it's no longer possible to sort out all the polling places, several trends surface: the closest margins came from securing a regional block of voters, then performing well in more than one town.

On the Republican side, Vernon Still carried the day with 1,229 votes, outpacing Howard Bounous, who came in second with 1,105. The newspapers reported a 74-vote margin between the two, but the final numbers showed Bounous had 50 votes less than was reported.

The Purdy polling place produced more votes than any other with 372, followed by Monett with 311 and the City of Cassville with 287. Shell Knob had 120 votes.

Vernon Still captured 108 votes or 38 percent of the Cassville vote, 36 Shell Knob votes or 30 percent of vote, 131 or 35 percent of the Purdy vote, while he had only 22 Monett votes. Bounous had 178 or 57 percent of the Monett vote, 118 or 32 percent of the Purdy vote and only 47 votes in Cassville.

No other candidates came close or but several scored large blocks of votes. Charlie Tate had 554 votes total, 144 or 46 percent of the Monett vote, 55 in Purdy and 10 in Cassville. Cecil Clayton secured 426 votes, including 149 or 40 percent of the Purdy vote, 22 in Monett and 18 in Cassville.

Wilbert Shockley, with 335 votes, got 63 votes or 57 percent of the Wheaton ballots, but only 18 Purdy votes, 38 in Cassville and 4 in Monett. Jim Blackburn, with 321 votes, captured 68 or 57 percent of the Shell Knob vote, but only 25 votes in Cassville, eight in Monett and none in Purdy. W.R. Mattingly, with 276 votes, got 60 or only 31 percent of his hometown Exeter block, but little else, with only 32 in Cassville, 12 in Monett and 3 in Purdy. H.G. Parsons, with 256 votes, captured 46 or 16 percent of his hometown Cassville constituency, but only 5 Monett votes and 7 in Purdy. Jim Reavis managed to win 231 votes even though he only had 2 votes in Cassville, 2 in Monett and 8 in Purdy.

Trailing far behind was Lloyd Vaught with 186, getting only 17 votes out of his Cassville base and 1 vote in Monett. Dan Spyres finished last with 87 votes, 16 from Monett, 14 from Cassville and 5 in Purdy.

Vote totals were much smaller on the Democratic side, where a block of votes made a bigger difference. Lige Frost won a clear victory with 524 votes over Vergil Pugh with 348. Frost had 80 or 43 percent of the Cassville vote, 27 or 18 percent of the Monett vote, and 10 votes in Purdy. Pugh had 64 or 62 percent of the Monett vote and 51 or 60 percent of the Purdy vote, plus 13 Cassville votes.

In the second tier was "Gus" Tatum with 251 votes, with 23 or 30 percent of the Monett vote, 27 or 32 percent of the Purdy vote, and 12 from Cassville. LeRoy Perkins found his strength in townships around Jenkins with 222 total, but pulled only 25 in Cassville and 4 in Monett. Ray Burnette made a presentable showing with 171 votes, including 44 or 24 percent of the Cassville ballots, though he only received 6 in Monett and 3 in Purdy. Gary Stewart did the same with 146 votes, 44 or another 24 percent in Cassville but few elsewhere.

Debbie Johnson managed to muster 102 votes, mostly in rural areas while getting only 7 in Monett and 3 in Cassville. Bob Vance won 165 votes, including 12 in Cassville, 5 in Purdy and none in Monett. Jim O'Neill had 105, including 5 in Cassville and 9 in Monett. Kenneth Ruark had 102. Jack Nave won 21 and Bill Daugherty had 14 votes.

Memories of the election lingered. Gary Youngblood recalled hearing a comment attributed to one candidate that went, "Maybe I ought to think about carrying a gun. I've got more enemies out there than I knew about."

It only took 150 signatures for Carlene Stephens to get her name of the November ballot as an independent, reflecting 2 percent of voters. When it came to the general election on Nov. 7, she only drew 95 ballots.

In the end, Republican Vernon Still won the general election over Lige Frost, 6,030 to 4,233, as Republicans swept all the races on the November ballot.

One off-key note lingered from the election field. In 2015, Cecil Clayton was executed by the State of Missouri for the 1996 murder of Sheriff's Deputy Chris Castetter.

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