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It is with profound loss, humility and sadness that the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office announces the passing of former Sheriff Joseph Lee Somerville.
Sheriff Somerville died on April 1, 2021 at the age of 81.
Sheriff Somerville’s terms in office from 1977 to 1982 were historic. A native of Loveville, Somerville was St. Mary’s County’s first black sheriff’s deputy when he joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1966.
In 1977, Somerville became both the first black sheriff in St. Mary’s County and in the state of Maryland when he was appointed by the governor to complete the previous sheriff’s term. Sheriff Somerville went on to win the 1978 election for St. Mary’s County Sheriff, which then made him the first elected black sheriff in St. Mary’s County and in Maryland as well.
At the time of the 1978 election, Sheriff Somerville was only the sixth black sheriff in the entire United States, according to “America’s First, A History of America’s Oldest Continuously Operating Sheriff’s Office.”
In addition, Sheriff Somerville saw two of his sons continue in his tradition of law enforcement as Kevin Darryl Somerville served with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for 25 years. Kevin Somerville also ran for St. Mary’s County Sheriff in the 2006 Democratic primary.
Cpl. Joseph Lee Somerville Jr. has been with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for 25.5 years.
Sheriff Tim Cameron joined the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office as a patrol deputy under Sheriff Somerville’s first elected term on July 3, 1980.
“I felt like he was a great guy to work for – very approachable,” Sheriff Cameron said of Sheriff Somerville. “I always felt like he genuinely cared about all of us,” Sheriff Cameron said.
Sheriff Somerville was “a genuinely good man and on top of that, a genuinely good police officer. I really enjoyed working for him,” Sheriff Cameron said.
Born on Nov. 19, 1939, Somerville was one of six total deputies in the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office in late 1966. It was in December that the Sheriff’s Office transformed into a 24-hour operation with full-time deputies.
Following the death of Sheriff George Sanger in September 1976, Somerville, then the lieutenant of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, was selected by Gov. Marvin Mandel to fill out the late sheriff’s remaining term.
On March 1, 1977, Somerville was sworn in as St. Mary’s County Sheriff on the steps of the courthouse in Leonardtown among a crowd of 350 people, according to the March 3, 1977 Enterprise newspaper.
In November 1978, Sheriff Somerville handily won the election for the county’s chief law enforcement officer, which again made history in St. Mary’s County and in Maryland.
Somerville, 39 then, said he hoped his election would set an example for the rest of Maryland’s counties to follow.
“I say that we broke history when the Ark and Dove landed. That was a day of tolerance and celebration,” Sheriff Somerville said at his swearing-in ceremony in December 1978. “Today, I feel the same with me being sworn in as sheriff and representing the people in St. Mary’s County,” he said in the Dec. 20, 1978 issue of The Enterprise.
At that time, there were 28 deputies working for the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office – 27 men and one female.
Today, the Sheriff’s Office is budgeted at 159 law enforcement positions.
Sheriff Somerville emphasized public safety during his tenure, Sheriff Cameron said, by initiating night patrols to stem the rise of commercial burglaries at the time. Traffic enforcement was also important to Sheriff Somerville.
In the September 1982 Democratic primary election, Sheriff Somerville lost the contest to Wayne Pettit, who went on to serve three terms as St. Mary’s County Sheriff.
Sheriff Somerville said following his primary election defeat that some deputies within the agency backed Pettit because they were looking for someone “whose jar of jelly beans is full,” The Enterprise reported on Sept. 22, 1982. “When things run out, when the candy jar gets empty, you go look for another source of sweetness,” Sheriff Somerville said then.
“Everybody who has sat in this chair has done the same thing,” Sheriff Cameron said. “People who don’t know what to do, they call the sheriff. It’s an honor that people call you because they trust you. Trust is hard won and easily lost.”
Sheriff Somerville said in 1982 that he had no regrets during his terms in office. But he said that the hardest part about leaving the job was having to send people elsewhere for assistance. “It bothers me somewhat that I won’t be here to answer their questions,” he said then.
Sheriff Somerville went on to work for 20 years as a Nuclear Security Officer at the Calvert Cliffs power plant. He retired there in 2013 and then served as a bailiff at the St. Mary’s County Circuit Court for a time.
Sheriff Somerville is survived by his wife of 59 years, Delores, daughter Terry Cutchember, his sons Joseph Lee Somerville Jr., Wayne Darrell Somerville, Kevin Darryl Somerville and Rodney Wendell Somerville.
Sheriff Somerville was an active and longtime member of the Blue Knights International Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club.
Briscoe-Tonic Funeral Home in Mechanicsville is handling Sheriff Somerville’s arrangements.
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