Some called him Sheriff, others Buck, but no matter how people that knew him referred to O.L. McCullen, all cherished him as a friend, someone who could be counted on to be there in good times and bad.
His word was his bond; service his mantra, and the way he lived his life reflected both.
He was a U.S. Army veteran, a retired Highway Patrol officer with 34 years of service and a three-term sheriff. Coupled with his public service was his devotion to his church, First Baptist in Clinton, and the Backsliders Sunday school class of which he was a proud member.
And to round it all out, was McCullen’s love of family. He doted on his wife, Carol, who he always said stole his heart and kept it, and cherished his children and grandchildren, pride always evident as he spoke of any of them.
McCullen also loved Sampson County and took great pride in being the citizens’ sheriff, a man who took his oath to protect and serve to heart, giving 110 percent day and night, 24 hours a day. Those he served came first, followed closely behind by those who worked with him in the county law enforcement agency.
He wasn’t much for the limelight; in fact, he mostly shied away from it, preferring to let others take center stage while he stood in the wings keeping a watchful eye. Some say it was the Highway Patrol training that often kicked in, but after years of working with McCullen we believe it was just the kind of man he was — intent, devoted, humble and selfless, preferring to put others in a spotlight he never felt he truly deserved.
The good deeds he performed — and by the account of others, there were many — were done in private because he did not want the accolades. His reward, McCullen said, came in knowing others would be helped and that he had played some small part in the difference made. It was a badge of honor he wore proudly, albeit quietly.
And he made a difference. Friends attested to the outstretched hand that was always there for them and others, reaching to lift them up, pat them on the back or offer a welcoming hug.
That help was offered in both his private and public life, because McCullen was always the servant, always willing to serve.
But he had a playful side too. A warm, often mischievous grin was usually spread across his face as he listened intently to what others had to say before interjecting his own opinion, never fearful to say what was on his mind or attest to his own belief.
It was a smile that could warm your heart, make you feel welcome or safe and, at times, make you want to break into a laugh, feeling comfortable in his presence.
McCullen’s passing early Saturday morning left many shocked at the news. Though he’d been sick, most thought of the man as invincible, someone who would always bounce back with a smile, a wink and a nod of assurance that all was OK.
This time, however, was different. But we know in his affable way, McCullen would tell us not to be sad, but rather to celebrate a life well lived, knowing that he was in a better place, looking out for us all from above, still keeping that watchful eye on the county and the residents he served so devoutly.
And he’d tell us that the best way to honor him would be to live lives of service. As we move forward we owe the sheriff that much.