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Top Sheriff of Tiny State Keeps Traditions Alive

Charles Hillinger's America

May 11, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Raymond D. (Big T) Tempest, 61, a 6-foot-1, 300-pound lawman, is the high sheriff of Rhode Island.

Being a sheriff in Rhode Island is different than being a sheriff in most other states.

Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs here don't investigate burglaries, robberies, assaults or murder. They don't write traffic tickets.

They provide court security.

As high sheriff, Tempest is the most important sheriff in Rhode Island. He heads the biggest sheriff's department in the tiny state. His license plate is Sheriff 1.

Ceremonial Duties

And, he has a number of colorful, traditional, ceremonial duties.

Every even year on the first Tuesday in January the high sheriff gets decked out in a high hat and tails. Carrying the high sheriff's mace, he stands alone on a balcony overlooking the state Capitol steps and proclaims at the top of his voice:

"Now hear ye! The honorable (name), having been duly elected to the place of governor by the free inhabitants of this state and these plantations, was duly sworn to the faithful performance of his office at 12 noon on this day.

"God save his excellency the governor and the State of Rhode Island and Providence plantations."

Rhode Island, the nation's smallest state, only 48 miles long and 37 miles wide, has the longest name of any of the states: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Big T, Rhode Island's illustrious high sheriff, has given the inaugural proclamation four times in his nine years and four months in office.

"I do it reluctantly," he confessed. "I just don't like wearing that monkey suit. I like to keep a low profile. You can imagine how I look. I'm so big. I look like a giant penguin.

"But it must be done. It's part of history."

Another tradition for the high sheriff is to lead the graduation processions for Brown University and Providence College late in May, also in top hat, tails and holding the mace.

But he doesn't show up.

"The high sheriff leading those graduation processions is a custom that also goes way back in time," explained Tempest.

"In the early days of Rhode Island, rowdy students would throw stones at dignitaries wearing top hats and tails in graduation processions. So, the high sheriff was there to keep the peace. Today the high sheriff's presence is symbolic."

Deputies in His Stead

He said that he sought permission early on in his administration to appoint other members of his department to take his place as his representative at the front of the line at the graduation exercises.

"Two of my deputies, Jack Walsh and Walter Vincent, love to dress up in top hat and tails. They make a nice appearance. They're good men," he said.

"Everybody knows how I feel about it. But they won't let me get away with a substitute at the governor's inaugural."

The pay for the high sheriff, $29,000 a year, hardly matches the prestige of the office. The governor appoints the high sheriff and the House and Senate confirm the appointment.

Until 1982 the high sheriff, who is sheriff of Providence County, and the state's four other sheriffs from Bristol, Newport, Washington and Kent counties, all served at the governor's pleasure.

Now the governor still makes the appointments but they are for 10-year terms.

Tempest spent 27 years as a detective with the Woonsocket Police Department, the last 10 years as chief of detectives, before he retired to become high sheriff. He and his wife, Maggie, have seven children and 13 grandchildren.

On the wall behind his desk is a portrait of President John F. Kennedy. "My man," he said. Also on the wall are posted sayings like: "It's nice to be important but it's more important to be nice," "People who believe the dead never come back to life should be here at quitting time."

The Hard Part

"The toughest part of this job is when verdicts come in on major cases. We have had some real donnybrooks in the courtrooms. Pure bedlam. We have to separate battling families," said the high sheriff, who headed court security for the Claus von Bulow trial.

"Mothers, daughters, brothers of victims jump over the rail to try to get to the defendants to beat them up. Recently one defendant grabbed a water pitcher and hit the prosecutor over the head with it.

"There are cheering sections sometimes. We warn them we'll throw them out of court if they don't behave, and we do when necessary.

"During some of the murder trials the police have SWAT teams on the roof of buildings to back us up. We have some tough characters in this state."

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