Young Grady: It All Started With Cops and Robbers on Combee
Illustrations by Briana Chenot
Photos provided by Polk County Sheriff’s Office
Once upon a time, when young Grady was running around the streets playing cops and robbers, he told his buddies that he would one day be their sheriff. They laughed, telling him, “They’re not gonna elect somebody from Combee Road to be sheriff.”
Never one to be lacking confidence, his usual response to them was, “Y’all just watch.”
Sheriff Grady Judd has now served in law enforcement in Polk County for 51 years and he has been Sheriff since 2004. For him, it’s all just part of God’s mission for his life, and he loves that he gets to serve and protect the individuals and families that make up the place that he has forever called home.
Known as a man who is very comfortable in front of cameras, and also known for myriad memorable quotes from throughout his career, it’s fitting he can easily recall some of the most impactful quotes from his childhood.
He fondly remembers his 4th-grade teacher, Dora Frost, a veteran of the military, who would march the kids around the campus.
“She would tell us, ‘You cannot be anything you want to be, but you can be anything you work to be.’”
Similarly, his 6th-grade teacher taught him “when the times get tough, people quit buying flowers” as a way to motivate students to find meaningful work to contribute to society.
Judd is widely recognized as a leader of leaders, evident by the fact he is a past president of the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Major County Sheriffs of America. But he said as a pre-teen he really was just like most youngsters who get themselves into a little mischief and find themselves in fisticuffs on occasion.
He laughs when he recalls deciding one day, one his walk home from Crystal Lake Junior High, to cool off with a swim in Crystal Lake.
“My mother was not happy when she found out…she said, ‘You’re in your school clothes, you could’ve drowned.’ I knew how to swim, but that was an unfortunate time for me,” he said with a grin on his face.
Judd says once he got to high school he was all business, although a quick look at his high school yearbook photo shows he probably knew how to have some fun, too.
“I love those pork chopped sideburns, don’t you?,” he says looking at a photo from his senior year. “Don’t show it to my deputies who want to have beards!”
He played football in junior high, but a high school coach told him in tryouts that he was “slow and uncoordinated”, which essentially put an end to his athletic career.
At just 16 he started working for the ambulance. Soon after he delivered a baby on the job, he was on the scene of two car crashes where his classmates were killed and he transported one of his teachers to the hospital, where ultimately she succumbed to cancer.
“It created a profound public effect on me, the way I wanted to help people the rest of my life,” he said.
If Judd was a case study for career readiness for PCPS students, the district would pass with flying colors.
[His friends] laughed, telling him, “They’re not gonna elect somebody from Combee Road to be sheriff. Never one to be lacking confidence, his usual response to them was, “Y’all just watch.”
He graduated from LHS on a Friday. The next week he started working toward a degree in political science at Polk Community College, and the following month Sheriff Monroe Brannen hired him as a radio operator. That September he married his high school sweetheart Marissa Ogburn, and ever since, Judd has been working tirelessly to protect the citizens of Polk County.
This school year is particularly special to Judd because it marks the beginning of the transition of all PCPS school resource officers over to the Sheriff’s Office.
“And if one day I die at about 110—I wanna live at least that long. I wanna be sheriff until I’m 100—if they say he looked out for the kids, then that’s all I’ll ever need…that would be my legacy.”
“I like to share with folks, whenever you deliver your children safe to school in the morning, they become my children,” he said. “So I have 110,000 children all day long until we can deliver them back safely to you.”
Judd and the Sheriff’s Office are respected as experienced leaders when it comes to school safety.
After a gunman killed 14 students and three staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Judd was asked to serve on a commission that investigated the massacre.
“They were slaughtered because the sheriff’s office failed. The school resource officer there failed. The school system failed. County communications failed,” he said.
The commission worked with then Florida Governor Rick Scott to pass the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. Judd said the experience serving on that board confirmed to him that security at PCPS has been better than most districts for a long time, and it also motivated him to continue to improve it.
“We can never guarantee that an active shooter won’t show up on a campus,” he said. “But I can tell you, we’ve reduced the probabilities.”
The task of keeping kids safe is deeply personal to him because he has 13 grandchildren and he has thousands of friendships and connections throughout the county. The man who was once a kid growing up off of Combee Road would love to keep serving Polk County constituents for years to come, if the electorate agrees.
“And if one day I die at about 110—I wanna live at least that long, I wanna be sheriff until I’m 100— if they say he looked out for the kids, then that’s all I’ll ever need…that would be my legacy.”