Few people, it seems, lack for a Johnny Mercer story.
For more than an hour Thursday, his colleagues offered tributes, hugs, handshakes and gifts for the retiring York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office deputy, who served for 49 years between the Newport News Police Department and in York County.
And if you had an encounter with Mercer, chances are he kept a log of it.
But more than that, his colleagues noted that Mercer always had time to mentor a younger deputy or offer encouraging words to colleagues or people in the community, even those he ticketed. And he’s seen plenty of changes since he joined the Newport News Police Department at age 21, after having worked for a time at the Newport News Shipyard.
Mercer worked as an officer in Newport News from March 3, 1969, until he retired from there July 31, 1998. He took the weekend off and then joined the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office Aug. 3, 1998, working there right up until his last day, which wasThursday.
On his first day, he received a gun, 18 bullets and a wooden night stick. The rules and regulation book, now a thick binder, could fit in his pocket.
You name it, Mercer probably did it in law enforcement. He served in uniform patrol, the detective bureau, the K-9 unit, traffic bureau and radar. He was part of the first original 10-man SWAT team in Newport News and stayed there for 17 years as a scout and sniper — mostly a scout, he said.
In 1981 he became a radar instructor for police departments up and down the Hampton Roads region, and in November of that year, began riding a motorcycle, which is almost as much a part of Mercer as his faith. And when he came to York County, he headed up its new-at-the-time traffic division.
The biggest change he recalled in his 49 years was in communication. Officers went from having call boxes in their patrol cars, to portable radios, to computers. No two days were the same, and that’s just how Mercer liked it.
“Most policing is in their heart,” Mercer said. “They want to be a policeman. They want to be a servant. We’re there to meet their basic needs, whatever the case is, without gratification. We’re just there to serve.”
Mercer said his goal was to leave a positive impression. His colleagues shared stories to the affirmative.
Maj. Ronnie Montgomery spoke of the first time he had received a compliment from a caller about Mercer, who had written the caller a ticket. Instead of the rude complaint Montgomery expected, it was just the opposite.
“I had never gotten a phone call where one of my deputies had written someone a ticket and they were calling me to thank me,” Montgomery said. “I hadn’t had that conversation before. But over the years, I have had many of those conversations where people were calling me (to say) that an encounter with him turned out to be a positive moment in their life and gave them something to think about.”
Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs praised Mercer as a man of faith.
“You have been a faithful servant to the people of this community,” Diggs said. “You have also been a faithful servant of God.”
But before you think he’s going to just ride his motorcycle into the sunset, Mercer is not retiring by choice.
Mercer has reached Virginia’s mandatory retirement age for law enforcement — 70.
As it is, Mercer was able to extend his time by a month.
What was Mercer thinking about as his retirement date approached?
“How to get back in,” said his wife of 27 years, Susan Mercer, laughing. “It’s exactly true.”
Jokingly, Mercer said he had gotten his birth certificate and made a copy of it to show he really hadn’t reached mandatory retirement age.
“I went and got my birth certificate and made a copy of it, ‘cause I was born in ‘48, and I changed the date to ‘58, and I took it to the sheriff, and said, ‘Hey, look what I found out. They made a typo on my birth certificate. I’m really turning 60, not 70,” Mercer said. “So he made a statement like, ‘I have people who can’t wait to retire and here Johnny wants to keep on working.”
So next week, Mercer, who has nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, will begin working as a volunteer with the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office auxiliary.
“When people retire and are like, ‘Ah, you should go fish, or play golf, or travel or whatever,’ well, they go golf and fish, that’s what they enjoy doing,” Mercer said. “I enjoy being out here on the street, helping people in one way or another. It costs them to do that, but for me, it don’t cost me nothing.”
Susan Mercer describes her husband as an old-school people person, and one who will never let go of his love for law enforcement.
“He is who he is,” Susan Mercer said. “He’s never compromised his integrity or who he is.”