Tribune-Courier Guest Columnish
The younger of two children, Joe Tom Haltom was born on Sunday, June 5, 1927 to Rufus Haltom and Nerva (Holley) Haltom in the Myerstown community just south of Benton. Like most everyone in the region in the 1930s, the Great Depression weighed down hard on the Haltom family and they found it very hard to make ends meet. “We were poor. I mean poor!” Haltom recalled about his childhood. The Haltom family farmed as a way of living and everyone in the family worked to survive. “We grew tobacco, strawberries, corn, and anything else we needed.” Haltom recalled.
Haltom began school at the one-room school house at Church Grove. “I started my first two years there and I remember my dad taking me to school with mules and a buggy when the weather was too bad to walk.” Haltom recalled. Haltom eventually transferred to Benton school and attended until he quit in 1943 to join the service.
After a stint in the Merchant Marines, Haltom returned home in 1946, re-enrolled in school and graduated from Benton High School in 1947. Haltom farmed with his father for a few years following his graduation before forming his first construction company in 1949 which specialized in road work and small construction. By 1957, Haltom and former business partner Darrell Cope formed Quality Construction Company in Benton which came to be one of the premiere contracting companies in western Kentucky. After nearly thirty years, Haltom retired from the construction business in 1977.
After a brief period as a policeman for City of Benton, Haltom was appointed deputy sheriff under Sheriff William S. “Billy” Watkins in 1953. When Watkins’ term ended in 1957, Haltom ran an unsuccessful campaign for the office where he came in third place in an eleven man race that saw the election of George Little. Four years later, Haltom tried again, but narrowly lost to Sam H. Myers. Persistence paid off for Haltom when he finally captured the sheriff’s office in 1965. He defeated four opponents in the Democratic Primary and one Republican opponent in the November General Election.
The sheriff’s office was significantly different in the mid 1960s than it is today. “We didn’t have squad cars or uniforms when I first took office.” Haltom recalled. “Times were different back then and we operated on a lot less.” Haltom recalled. “The court didn’t furnish us guns, but I didn’t much like carrying a gun anyway.” Haltom said. “I felt that most of the time things could be worked out without a gun. Times were different back then.”
In one incident during his first days in office, Haltom did have to use a gun when he arrested a man for the armed robbery of the Direct Oil Company in north Benton. Haltom apprehended the suspect after a brief shoot out with the help of Benton policeman Herb Jones. The prisoner was taken to the Marshall County jail and held in the corner cell on the northeast corner of the courthouse until he made an escape during the overnight hours. “He sawed the bars of the cell in two and tied sheets together and climbed down from the jail which was then located on the upstairs floor of the courthouse.” Haltom recalled. “We eventually recaptured him.” Haltom added.
The biggest and most tragic case of Haltom’s career was the murder of Ina Mae Solomon, the 49 year old wife of James M. “Jim” Solomon, a successful contractor in Calvert City. She was discovered fatally shot at 8pm on the Friday evening of December 2, 1966 and the murder was a complete shock to the entire county.
“She was found by her daughter in the living room.” Haltom recalled. “There was blood on the phone where she had tried to phone for help.” Haltom added. The Paducah Sun Democrat reported that approximately $250 of dimes and quarters, profits from a car wash owned by the Solomon family, was taken from the home, but Mrs. Solomon’s purse which had $74 in it was not disturbed. According to reports from the Tribune-Democrat, Solomon was alone at the time of the murder and her husband was away on a hunting trip in Pennsylvania and her son had just left the home to attend a basketball game. It was also reported that Solomon had spoken to one of her husband’s business partners on the telephone shortly before the murder and had “sounded normal.”
“I was eating dinner at Stacey’s Restaurant in Paducah when I was first informed of the murder.” Haltom recalled. Haltom and his deputies were aided by the Kentucky State Police in their investigation and the entire area was searched for days. Haltom worked tirelessly over the next few months trying to solve the case and several rewards were offered for information. Many reports and tips flooded the sheriff’s office, but most proved to be useless or just merely rumors. Two suspects were questioned, but later released. With all leads taking a dead end, the case turned cold. “We never solved that case.” Haltom remembered. “We were pretty certain we knew who did it, but we never could prove it. That was in the days before DNA testing, so it made it very hard to solve the case.” Haltom said.
Crimes such as murder and robbery were very rare and the biggest crime problem during Haltom’s first term was booze. “Alcohol was probably the biggest problem we had during my first term.” Haltom recalled. “And for the most part we had the same offenders that I had seen when I was a deputy sheriff under Billy Watkins.” Haltom continued.
Haltom’s first term ended in January 1970 and due to Kentucky law at the time, he was unable to run for a consecutive term as sheriff. Haltom was encouraged by his supporters to run for county clerk in the Democratic Primary of 1969. However, the race featured four other candidates, none of whom could stop the rising political star of Vietnam Veteran James R. English who ultimately won the race. “I should have never made that race.” Haltom recalled. “I knew I was going to get a shellacking because James English was a good candidate.”
Itching to get back into public office after sitting out for four years, Haltom made another run for sheriff in the 1977 Democratic Primary. The race saw a record number of nineteen total candidates including Bonnie English, the wife of incumbent sheriff Jerry G. English, and the first female candidate for sheriff in Marshall County.
“The race was very competitive with a lot of good people running.” Haltom remembered. Haltom centered his campaign on his past record as sheriff, and promised if elected again, he would provide the same kind of service shown in his first term. His message resonated with the voters and they placed their confidence in Haltom electing him with 1,904 votes.
Haltom began his second term on a high note when he was elected President of the Kentucky Sheriff’s Association and he was appointed by Governor Julian Carroll as member of the Local Government Statute Review Commission which was given the task of evaluating the effectiveness of county and city laws in Kentucky. Also during his second term, Haltom became involved in the newspaper business when he and retired auto dealer, Leon Riley founded the now defunct Marshall Messenger which operated until the end of the 1970s. Shortly before his second election to the sheriff’s office, Haltom became a member of the Bank of Marshall County Board of Directors, a position he would hold for nearly thirty years. Haltom served most of that time as chairman of the board.
When Haltom’s second term as sheriff ended in 1982, he made an unsuccessful race for county coroner against incumbent Jess Collier and Haltom’s last race for public office came in 1985, when he came in fourth place in a very crowded campaign for first district magistrate.
Haltom has been very supportive of the progress of the county over the years and he was influential in the construction of Marshall County’s new hospital. He helped purchase the land for the new facility on Symsonia Highway which opened in 2009. Additionally, Haltom was instrumental in the construction of the medical building adjacent to the hospital which now bears his name.
Haltom and his first wife, Anita, played a significant part in the founding of the Marshall County Exceptional Center in the 1960s. “Anita played a bigger role than I did.” Haltom said. Anita served on the board of directors until she passed away in 1991 before seeing the construction of the new center on old Symsonia Highway. Today, Joe Tom remains active with the center and still serves on the board.
Despite all of his success, Haltom remains humble looking back at his career and credits the citizens of Marshall County for his success. “The people of Marshall County have been very good to me.” Haltom reflected. “I have tried to show my appreciation by giving back to the community that has been very good to me.”
Interview: Joe Tom Haltom, 2013
Tribune-Democrat, December 8, 1966
Tribune-Democrat, January 5, 1967
Paducah Sun-Democrat, December 4, 1966
Marshall Courier, 1967
Marshall County Election Commissioners Record, 1942-1992