Thursday, January 21, 2021 - by Mitch Talley, Whitfield County Director of Communications
Over the years, Whitfield County Emergency Services Director Claude Craig has seen his share of snowstorms, floods, tornadoes, car crashes, chemical spills, fires, and other disasters.
He’s made it his life’s mission to help his fellow citizens cope with the aftermath of such disasters and try to prevent them from happening in the first place.
But effective Friday, Jan. 22, it’ll now be up to others to help county residents make it through some of their darkest days because Craig will be retiring after a public service career dating back to 1974.
“I graduated high school in May 1973, and I told my dad, who was a captain with the sheriff’s office at the time, that I wanted to go work with the sheriff’s office and he of course said no,” Craig recalled.
After listening to months of “begging and pleading,” however, Junior Craig – who later served as chief deputy and major of administration for the sheriff’s office – finally relented to his son, and 19-year-old Claude started what would pretty much be his lifelong career path on Feb. 19, 1974.
“I worked for the sheriff’s office a few years, but then an opportunity came along for a private enterprise business and I took that,” Craig said. “Needless to say, that didn’t work out too good so I begged my way back in 1992 and started back with the sheriff’s office and never looked back from that point.”
Once he had returned, Craig worked in court services, moved to the patrol division, and then became deputy director of emergency management around 2008 or 2009.
“After about a year, the director left, and I was appointed as the director of emergency management,” Craig said. “Then after about another six months, they came to me and asked if I wanted to take 911, so I became director of that, too.”
Over the past decade, Craig’s reputation in the emergency management world has grown. In fact, he just finished a two-year term – his second such stint - as president of the Emergency Management Association of Georgia, and served as a liaison for public safety for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia to the state legislative branch in Atlanta. Moreover, he has been president for the past 11 years of the local LEPC organization that brings the public and private sector together to help handle emergencies like chemical spills and fires. He also has made sure the ambulance service providers have lived up to their contracts with the county for the past several years.
“In addition to all the work he’s done for Whitfield County, Claude has been a mentor not only to me but to a lot of other county emergency management managers and employees with the state throughout the years,” says Tim Reeve, field coordinator for Area 6, Georgia Emergency Management Agency Homeland Security. “He’s served as president of the state EMA for multiple terms and really was instrumental in moving emergency management forward in the state, so we appreciate that.”
During a retirement reception held in his honor at the 911 Center on Wednesday, Craig singled out some key supporters over the years, including Maj. John Gibson and Sheriff Scott Chitwood of the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, and members of the Board of Commissioners.
“I would say that a couple of my biggest supporters have been Major Gibson and Sheriff Chitwood,” Craig said. “The major has kinda mentored me along, and one of my best friends is Sheriff Chitwood. In fact, we’ve been together basically our whole life, and I worked for him for 20-something years. He’s supported me every time I’ve needed anything, and when I asked him for it, he’s been very willing. I’ve also been fortunate to work for boards of commissioners that have given me the resources to do what I need to do to serve the citizens of Whitfield County.”
Chitwood - who says he’s known Craig all his life, dating back to their days in kindergarten, all through school until graduating from Dalton High in 1973, and as co-workers since 1992 when Chitwood became sheriff – called Craig a “great guy, dear friend,” adding “I congratulate him and wish him the best.”
“With Claude’s departure now, I am the last remaining individual that has worked in all three of the county jails,” Chitwood pointed out. “At one time, it was myself, Claude, and Rick Swiney (who retired in 2017).”
Looking back on his long career, Craig believes one of his biggest accomplishments was serving as project manager for the county’s new state-of-the-art emergency communications system.
“In 2015, the citizens voted in a SPLOST that allowed us to install a new public safety communications system,” he said. “Our old system had deteriorated to the point where we couldn’t even talk to each other on the radio if we were standing face to face, but this allowed us to pursue putting in a new system.”
Craig oversaw the two-year project that included the installation of three new radio tower sites and “basically building a new communications system from the ground up.”
“Although we tied on to the Tennessee Valley system, we’ve kind of got our own system within a system,” he said. “That is something I’m very proud of because like in life itself, the most important function of anything that you do is communications. Until we got the new system, that was a problem when we had officers on the ground that couldn’t talk and tell us they needed something, or the fire department needed help inside a house fire, or law enforcement needed boots on the ground, help arresting somebody or whatever it was.”
He’s also grateful for another opportunity his job afforded him. “It’s something a lot of people don’t get to do in their career, but I’ve been directly hands-on and involved in two presidential protection details coming to Whitfield County,” he said. “The first one was 28 years ago with George H.W. Bush and then a couple of weeks ago with President Donald Trump. It doesn’t really matter who the president is, it’s just a very neat, humbling experience to be involved and be that close to the president of the United States That was a very humbling experience, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do that twice.”
Craig says he finally made the decision to retire after “many nights of laying awake praying and asking questions and talking to my wife.”
“I just decided it was time to do this,” he said. “I’ve been a certified peace officer for 46 years! That’s a long time.”
So long, in fact, that Craig has witnessed firsthand lots of changes in law enforcement over the years. “I mean, when I went to mandate school, I think it was two weeks. Of course, now it’s 12 weeks, so everything about law enforcement has changed dramatically, from daylight to dark. Absolutely more responsibilities now, and of course it’s a physical job. When law enforcement puts on all their equipment, it adds about 34 pounds you gotta carry around all day. And I’m not as young as I used to be!”
Though he’s leaving his current job, Craig thinks he may not be through serving others, though.
“I’m probably not gonna retire completely and just go home and sit down and not do anything because I feel like the good Lord put me here to serve in this capacity and I don’t know if I’m through serving yet. So I may be seeing what’s on the road down the road – the next chapter.”
Being busy helping other citizens respond to emergencies over the years has kept him away from his own home during severe weather.
“I guess I haven’t been able to be home during a snow event in probably 20-something years,” he said with a chuckle, “so maybe I can build a snowman now when it comes time!”