COVINGTON, Ga. — Since becoming Newton County’s coroner 12 years ago, Tommy Davis’ primary objective was simply to be there for his community. But as he leaves office Dec. 31, though difficult, Davis said he would continue serving the place he calls home.
The 53-year-old lost his reelection bid against newcomer Dorothea Bailey-Butts in the Nov. 3 General Election. Bailey-Butts will lead the coroner’s office starting Jan. 1.
Davis, a native of Newton County and owner of J.C. Harwell Funeral Home in Covington, said helping families and friends get through a time of loss, though often difficult, was rewarding.
“You can go through a lot of hard times in your life, but when you receive the news of a sudden tragic passing, being there for people is 100% why I did it,” Davis told The Covington News. “I would’ve done the job for free, because I wanted to be there when people needed me.”
Davis began working for the coroner’s office under then-Coroner Bob Wheeler after Davis’ father, who was Wheeler’s deputy at the time, died in 2003.
“The day after the funeral Bob came to me and he said, ‘What do you think about filling your daddy’s shoes?’” Davis recalled. “‘Would you want to be deputy coroner?’ And I was like, ‘heck yeah.’
“From April 2003 to now I’ve been involved with the coroner’s office, and I didn’t fill my dad’s shoes — couldn’t fill his shoes — but I did the job, you know.”
Davis said it was the five years as deputy coroner that helped prepare him for his tenure as chief coroner. It takes “empathy, compassion and true understanding” to uphold the position to his best ability, he said.
“It’s not a job that can be learned overnight. It’s something you can’t walk into and expect to understand fully until you’ve done it,” he said. “It’s a demanding job physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s a demanding job. You’re dealing with people at the most devastating time in their life. By the time they get to a funeral home, they’ve had a little bit of time to absorb what’s happened. But when the moment happens and you’re in that moment, it’s a devastating time for them and you have to prepare yourself for this.”
In 2008, after Wheeler chose to retire as coroner, Davis was elected to succeed him after a successful campaign. Davis would go on to serve as coroner for three full terms, totaling 17 years with the coroner’s office.
“Seventeen years is a lot of time to give of yourself to a job,” he said. “It’s a part time position, but you’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So you have to be ever-ready. To give of my time for 17 years to the community, I was proud of that. For 17 years I was able to serve the community I call home, where I raised my family, my grandchildren, where I live — I own a business here. But for that time there in office, I think being there when somebody needed me is what I was proudest of.”
Davis said there are approximately 700 deaths recorded in Newton County each year, and the coroner’s office is typically tasked with investigating 25%-30% of those cases. That totals to more than 2,000 cases over 12 years for Davis. Some of those cases are still fresh on his mind even today.
“There were some rough days, there were some rough calls. Even at roughly 100,000 people, we’re still a relatively small community in the world. And we’re responding to deaths both natural and of tragic manners of people we know. Our friends, our neighbors … so when you’re responding to those things, you’re responding to some pretty tragic events. Being there when those families needed me and being sure I was carrying out what they needed to have happen for them as far as the coroner goes was very important to me.”
One of several particular incidents Davis recalled was the death of his friends’ young daughter.
“The last time I saw her, she peeled a sticker off her book and put it on my chest,” he said. “Her name was on that sticker. Her and her mom left. The next time I saw her, about 5 o’clock the next morning, she passed away. That was pretty devastating. To be joking around, her playing and laughing with me, and then the next day she was deceased.
“None of them are easy, but to deliver those death notifications — a lot of them stick out in your mind,” Davis added. “And I’m not going to say that I haven’t shed tears for these folks before, because I care about them. A lot of them I knew, some of them I didn’t, but it was still some pretty hard times … Moments you’ll never forget.”
Davis said there were times calls forced him to walk out on family dinners, Christmases and even caused hiccups in his family’s vacation plans, but it never bothered him.
“I did all that because I have a desire to serve,” he said. “I guess I’ve had a servant’s heart all my life.”
Come Jan. 1, Davis said all his focus would on his funeral business, but he “will always have that desire to be there for people.”
“Thank you,” Davis said as a heartfelt message to the community. “Thank you for allowing me to do that for 17 years.”