SHEPHERDSTOWN – In a life filled with honors and achievements, most recently his selection this week as the 2014 Distinguished Citizen of Jefferson County, Sheriff Pete Dougherty has faced his share of tough moments, too.
For Pete Dougherty, one difficult, defining moment came in 2006.
The native New Yorker had to accept that Sandy Dougherty – his sweetheart at Davis and Elkins College, his wife of nearly 32 years and the mother to his three children – was dying of cancer.
“As anybody who has ever gone through that, you know you would have changed places with the person who you love if you could,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘Don’t let it be her, let it be me.’
“The worst part about it is that she loved her kids, her family, everybody—and she doesn’t have the chance to see all of her grandkids and watch them grow up.”
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, Dougherty drove her to and from the hospital for radiation and chemotherapy. He said he was amazed by her strength.
“She never felt sorry for herself. She’d leave treatment and say, ‘So, where are we going out to eat?’” said Dougherty, smiling at the memory.
Her breast cancer went into remission, but the doctor told them that Sandy would never live past her 70s.
“So, for the next three years while her cancer was in remission, we did all of the things we’d dreamed of doing in retirement,” Dougherty recalled. “We went to visit our former exchange student in Costa Rica. We did a lot of traveling and fun things that we had always wanted to do.”
In 2005, Sandy, who worked as attendance director for Jefferson County Schools, made an unusual request. She asked her husband to run again for the Jefferson County school board.
He’d left in 2002 after serving on the board for 18 years.
“I told her I was way too busy with my work and community service, and she said, ‘It’s not about you, it’s about the kids, the parents and the employees.’ So I filed for the race.”
In early 2006, Sandy suffered a relapse. “She lost her balance and fell while leaving the school board. When we went to the doctor, they told us that the cancer was back – this time it had gone to her brain. I told her I was going to drop out of the race. Sandy said, ‘No you won’t. You have to do this.’”
As the school board race unfolded, Sandy’s health deteriorated. Soon, her doctor told them nothing more could be done.
“There was no struggle in the end,” he remembers. “I tell people she was somewhat sick for years, but the last 10 days she seemed she didn’t feel in good health and then she died. She was 53.”
After she passed at home April 20, Dougherty took time off, grieved and then returned to his then job at the Department of Veterans Affairs in D.C. Weeks later, voters returned him to the school board.
“I went to work at the school board – I was fulfilling her last wish,” he explains.
Rooted in compassion
Long before becoming sheriff in early 2013, Dougherty spent decades advocating for people in need, most visibly veterans who faced problems such as homelessness, health woes and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He did this in jobs ranging from probation officer and parole supervisor to magistrate to legislative assistant for then-Congressman Harley Staggers. He also worked as a staff member for both the House and Senate committees on Veterans Affairs and served a long stint as national director of VA Homeless Veterans Programs in D.C.
It appears the seeds of Dougherty’s compassion for others were first planted in his childhood in West Patterson, N.J.
“My father was an alcoholic,” explains Dougherty in a quiet voice. He’s recounting his early years for a writer from behind his desk at the sheriff’s law enforcement office in Kearneysville. His office is lined with diplomas, favorite photos and numerous community and civic awards.
“My dad was a World War II veteran,” Dougherty said. “He served in the Army from 1942 until the end of the war. He had PTSD from his military service.”
Because of his father’s alcoholism and PTSD, Dougherty, his two sisters and his mom didn’t have an easy time of it as he grew up.
“We were poor,” he said. “We never became homeless or lost housing, but things were always tight. My father was, based on testing, a genius – but he had a hard time keeping a job. He was both terrifying and brilliant, and tortured by his PTSD.”
Dougherty’s dad died when he was just 13. He says the early compassion fostered in him as he witnessed his father’s struggles led him to extend compassion to people facing all kinds of troubles.
“Some veterans struggle with mental health, substance abuse,” Dougherty said. “Many of them hit rock bottom. I’ve worked with thousands of veterans, and they’ve gotten their lives back together. While healthcare and benefits are important, most of them are aided through their faith. Ultimately many credit their faith and support of family and or friends with helping them get on the road to healing. It’s something every parent, child, friend and neighbor struggles with.
“You can’t make someone change. It has to come from within.”
Dougherty said that after the Vietnam War, even though PTSD became well known and better understood, a lot of Vietnam vets continued to suffer.
“Many of the vets were functional alcoholics with PTSD who kept their demons away with work,” he said. “[Then] when they retired, their lives collapsed.”
While much has improved over the years in terms of mental health, addiction recovery services and homeless vet support, Dougherty believes more must be done.
“I will be happy the day somebody says with pride how their psychiatrist has helped them – with the same pride as we talk about the knee doctor that puts us together,” he said. “Only then, when that stigma of mental illness is gone, will I know things have changed and truly gotten better.”
Dougherty’s desire to help has brought him into myriad community service roles over the decades. He’s been a leader with the Charles Town Kiwanis Club, Asbury United Methodist Church in Charles Town, Boy Scouts of America and literally dozens more.
Though he resigned from his VA job and his position on the school board to accept the sheriff’s post, he remains involved with the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and was an unanimous pick to join the organization’s 16-member board of directors.
Dougherty attended the NCHV Annual Awards Banquet May 29 as the Home Depot Foundation and NCHV presented the first Peter Dougherty Award.
The award honoring his work goes to an organization that helps homeless veterans. Each year, a recipient organization will get a $50,000 grant for creating supportive housing for homeless veterans and their families.
Dougherty said he feels proud of the award.
“It is really cool,” he said. “The Home Depot Foundation decides which organization receives the award. They’ve provided millions of dollars to help people. It’s a great organization.”
After earning his bachelor degree in history and political science at Davis and Elkins, the small liberal arts college in Elkins, Dougherty’s first job brought him to the Eastern Panhandle.
“I worked in the parole system,” he said. “I had juveniles and adults – up to 150 at a time.”
He said he sometimes crosses paths with people he supervised as a parole officer in the 23rd Judicial Circuit in 1975 and 1976. “I do believe there is a way to change your life and get in a better place,” he said. “Many of them are still doing well.”
After two years in that role, Dougherty became a magistrate in Jefferson County, a position he held until 1983 when he left to work for Congressman Staggers.
Dougherty later became a national expert on housing, working on Capitol Hill for a benefits and homelessness subcommittee for veterans from 1983 to 1994. He then became director of Homeless Veterans Program for the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, a position he kept for 19 years, until he retired in March of last year to become sheriff.
In January of last year, then-Sheriff Robert “Bobby” Shirley, a Democrat who’d been elected to a second term in November, resigned as he headed to federal prison following his role in the beating of a man suspected in a bank robbery.
Jefferson County Commissioners began to search for someone to serve as interim sheriff, until the next regular election in November 2014.
Friends encouraged Dougherty to apply.
“Someone said, ‘Why don’t you put in for it? You know how to run budgets, personnel, schedules and your years as a legislative assistant and magistrate show you know how to interpret the law says,’” he said. Once appointed, Dougherty immediately sought to create a more positive atmosphere within the sheriff’s office and about law enforcement throughout Jefferson County.
“I wanted to put stability back in the county,” he said. “The men and women who work in this office work pretty hard. It’s a tough job, and most of them do extraordinarily well at that. Because of the turmoil, police in general and our department in specific were getting a bad rap.
“Part of what this organization needs and what any organization needs is continuity and order.”
Dougherty introduced a variety of changes.
“I’ve changed shift hours, added more manpower in the streets,” he said. “I also made sure if officers are working outside of here for functions, that we have them do it for us in uniform as deputies. You shouldn’t be a police officer and get paid for outside work in West Virginia.”
The sheriff also revamped investigations, which has led to his department solving more serious crimes. Drug addicts seeking money to get high are behind a large number of crimes here, Dougherty said.
He isn’t always at his desk. “I ride out with my officers, but I don’t do routine road patrols,” he said. “That’s why I have trained deputies.”
Dougherty says he drives an unmarked car but has pulled drivers over if he sees them on their cell phones talking or texting. He does carry a gun and notes, “I am prepared to go wherever trouble starts.”
Whether he is describing his work as sheriff, the passing of his first wife, growing up with an alcoholic father or witnessing the plane crash at the Pentagon from the window of his office at the Veteran Affairs on Sept. 11, 2001, Dougherty invariably speaks in a soothing tone.
“I’m very calm,” he said. “I don’t ever jump into a panic over things in life. I guess that’s a good quality for a sheriff – and a parent too.”
He’s eager to stay on as sheriff. Dougherty had no opposition in the Democratic primary in May, but he will face Republican Steven Sowers Sr. in the November election.
“I think there are two parts of this job that I really like,” he said. “One of my favorite parts is when we arrest the bad guys. The other part is giving people back some sense of hope.”
The work is part of a life that Dougherty cherishes.
“I am one of the most blessed people on the planet,” he said. “There is almost nobody that I know that have had the life experiences I have had.”
Part of that happiness comes from Jan Dougherty, his wife since 2007. The two reconnected at a class reunion in New Jersey.
“I’m very independent – I never thought I was going to get remarried,” he said. “That’s part of the blessings of life. When I ran across her 40 years after high school, I knew this is the right person for me.”
So content is Dougherty that he nothing would make him want to stop doing what he’s doing.
He said he recently chatted with Randy Smith, whose good deeds have included building a community center in South Berkeley after he won a $79 million Powerball jackpot in 2010. At the time, Smith was serving as magistrate after two terms as Berkeley County Sheriff.
“I told Randy Smith that we were both sheriffs and former magistrates – I said the only thing we don’t have in common is that he won the lottery and I haven’t.
“If I won, I’d want to do things the way Randy did and help others with my winnings. I’d go back to work the next day.”
He said no regrets gnaw at him.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said. “If I die tomorrow, I feel like the things I’ve done up to now, have been good. Many people, when they get older, want to start changing and go back to do things differently.