Purcell remembered as lawman, story-teller

When John Purcell passed away on Dec. 28, he was remembered as a top-notch law officer.

He served 26-1/2 years as an Arkansas State Trooper, as well as 24 years as a Greene County constable for what was then Clark Township.

“John was a family friend,” said Arkansas State Police Cpl. Todd Harris. “He was friends with my dad, and I’d known him as long as I can remember.”

But Harris was quick to add Purcell was a whole lot more to him personally.

“He asked me: ‘what do you want to be?’” Harris said. “And I told him: ‘a State Trooper like you.’ So he got me started – he’s the reason I wear the uniform now.”

Harris added Purcell was a great story-teller. “He had a way to spin a yarn that would make you want to hear it,” he said.

And Purcell was genuine, Harris concluded.

“He was 100 percent John Purcell, through and through,” he said. “There was nothing of putting on airs about him. He was a mentor and a great guy.”

The last three Greene County Sheriffs also remembered Purcell with respect and affection.

“He was an ‘old school’ cop,” said Sheriff Steve Franks. “I’d known him for years.”

He added that Purcell was still a state trooper when Franks started as a policeman at the Marmaduke Police Department. “And he went beyond just being a cop,” he said. “He was always there when you needed him. He was always a cop’s cop.”

Franks noted Purcell’s continued service in law enforcement as the constable of what was then Clark Township after he’d retired from the Arkansas State Police. “He’d come to the Sheriff’s Department,” he said, “and ask if there was anything he could do [to help.]”

Like Harris, Franks noted Purcell’s skill as a story-teller. “He always had stories, both old and new,” he said. “Everybody liked to listen to them. He’ll be sorely missed.”

Franks’ predecessor David Carter remembered Purcell fondly as well. “He’d always come to the office to visit,” he said, “and I enjoyed his talks. He was a wealth of information.”

Carter added Purcell was also a dangerous competitor, in a manner of speaking. “He was an excellent shot,” he said, “and I didn’t want him to shoot against me.”

Carter added Purcell was all the more challenging as a shooting competitor when he went to the firing range given his use of a “wheel gun” – his service-issued revolver – instead of the semi-automatic pistols in common use by many law enforcement agencies. “He was ‘old school,’” Carter said.

Carter’s predecessor Dan Langston remembered Purcell as always willing to help in any way he could. He explained that back when he (Langston) was on the Paragould Police Department before he became sheriff in 1997, Purcell had been extremely helpful to both the department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation during an incident at a local bank.

“A juvenile had gone into one of the banks with a .22 [-caliber rifle],” Langston said, “and he wasn’t trying to rob it – just disrupt it. And John was there to help both us and the FBI. Any time we needed support, he was there.”

That support of local law enforcement continued, Langston said, after he had become sheriff and Purcell had retired.

“Anytime we needed anything, he was always there to support us,” he said. “He never overreacted and never had a bad demeanor. He’ll be sadly missed.”

Greene County District Judge Dan Stidham acknowledged Purcell’s great stature as a law officer.

“John was considered a legend in law enforcement,” he said. “Any time any of us [i.e. judges, attorneys or law enforcement personnel] had a question, he was available [to answer it]. He was a joy to work with.”

Stidham added Purcell’s death was a shock.

“I know he was in his 80s, but I was stunned,” he said. “He always looked the picture of health. He looked about 40 years younger than he really was.”

Like Harris and Franks, Stidham recalled Purcell’s penchant for storytelling. “I enjoyed the times he’d stop by and tell those stories,” he said. “I’ll miss those long conversations with him. He will be sorely missed – he was a legend.”

“I met John in 1980 when I was a jailer,” added Omer Overbay, Greene County reserve deputy sheriff and organizer of the annual Retired Greene County Law Enforcement Officers dinners. Overbay said that thanks to Purcell and then-State Police trooper James Danley, he and several other newly hired deputies had been able to ride along and learn the tricks of the trade. “They showed us how to be policemen,” he said.

Overbay noted that at the time, new deputies had to wait up to a year before being able to attend the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy to receive formal training. “In the meantime,” he said, “you were on your own, and they helped us.”

Overbay said Purcell loved law enforcement and those who served in the profession. “The people in our career were special to him. He loved the career.”

Overbay noted that even after retirement from the Arkansas State Police, Purcell continued to serve in law enforcement. “He was a Greene County constable up to the day he died,” Overbay concluded.

Purcell is survived by his wife of 57 years, Barbara Purcell; son and daughter in law, Harrell and Zhaoxiu Tan Purcell; daughters, Carol Purcell, Naomi Purcell and fiancé, Corey Straub; brother and sister in law, Don and Sherri Purcell; grandchildren, Sarah Purcell, Zack Purcell, and Yi Wei; and great-granddaughter, Desiree Wynn.

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