SALISBURY — A year ago, a follow-up investigation into some illegal hunting led state Wildlife Officer Sgt. Tony Sharum to an eastern Rowan County mobile home.
His official knock on the door would be the start of an amazing friendship.
Sharum talked to the home’s renter, a man in his early 30s, who acknowledged under questioning he had been hunting for deer without a license.
During his visit, Sharum noticed the trailer had hardly any furniture — a table, some broken chairs and an old couch. In his enforcement of wildlife laws, Sharum hears a lot of excuses from hunters and fishermen, but when this man said he had been hunting deer for food, he believed him.
Still, Sharum had no choice but to write out a citation, which amounted to a $215 fine with court costs.
“He was a pretty humble fellow,” Sharum says. “It was evident he was having a real hard time of it. You could see the despair in his eyes.”
A 9-year-old girl appeared from the back of the mobile while Sharum was there. On top of everything else, the man was a single father with sole custody of his daughter.
Transplants from Tennessee, the man and his daughter had hoped he would find a job in Rowan County, where they had extended family, but it didn’t work out. They depended on deer and what they could buy with a small amount of food stamps.
As he was leaving, Sharum asked whether the man would be interested in a deer, in case Sharum’s duties led him to one that could be dressed and used for food.
“I got him a deer and brought it to him,” Sharum says. “He was real excited about that, and thankful.”
Sharum talked more with the hunter and asked him what his prospects for Christmas were, as far as providing some gifts for the little girl.
Sharum noticed he had some material spread out on his table. The father said he was trying to make some craft items to sell in hopes he could buy his daughter a few presents at a dollar store.
As the man became comfortable with Sharum, he talked more about his circumstances. Sharum learned that the girl was sleeping on a cot, and he was sleeping on the couch.
They had one beat-up kerosene heater for the whole trailer. The girl had only a pair of jeans for school.
Christmas was coming fast, and Sharum couldn’t put the little girl out of his mind. A wildlife officer in Rowan County for 21 years, Sharum knows a lot of people in law enforcement.
He started reaching out to those officer friends, seeing if they could find some furniture for the mobile home and a few gifts for the girl.
Sharum also waged a Facebook campaign on behalf of the small family. In the weeks leading to Christmas, he noticed his number of Facebook friends increase by several hundred.
Every day, people contacted Sharum to donate furniture, money and clothing. He might be pumping gas, and a stranger would ask whether he was the wildlife officer trying to help the 9-year-old. Then he would squeeze a $20 bill into Sharum’s hand.
As soon as Sharum reported that the girl needed a bicycle, a couple called him, met Sharum at Walmart and purchased one.
A businessman, hearing the father was hunting deer to feed his daughter, paid for the man’s hunting license.
Several people donated new kerosene heaters, and Sharum took some of the donated money and pre-paid for kerosene at a nearby convenience store for the rest of the winter.
He also pre-paid the trailer’s electric bills and put aside money to buy fuel and repairs for the hunter’s pickup.
Whenever furniture was donated, Sharum transported it to the trailer immediately. Both the man and his daughter ended up with fully furnished bedrooms, a pull-out couch, love seat, a new kitchen table and chairs, a microwave, coffee maker, televisions and DVD players.
People also contributed food and almost $1,200 in cash and gift cards.
The staff at Johnny’s restaurant in Rockwell made and delivered a Christmas Eve dinner for the father and daughter. It included two turkeys and all the trimmings.
Sharum dubbed his efforts to provide some Christmas gifts for the little girl as “Operation Secret Santa.” Many people delivered gifts — wrapped and unwrapped — and they included some shirts, socks and toiletries for the father.
The gifts filled the entire bed of Sharum’s Ford F-150 and the cab space inside, except for the driver’s seat.
On Christmas morning, Sharum and Thomas Rufty Patterson arrived at the trailer at sunrise, hauled the gifts into the living room and stayed long enough to see the girl unwrap all the presents and even ride her new bicycle down the street.
“That was pretty cool,” says Sharum, who had to work Christmas Day. “I’m sure she won’t forget that Christmas. Needless to say, there was plenty of grinning going on.”
Sharum figures at least 100 people became involved in Operation Secret Santa, with gifts coming from several different states, including California. One even came from a soldier in Afghanistan.
As an update, the father now has a job in a local store. He and his daughter still have some struggles, but they’re looking for a place with better living conditions, Sharum says.
“He’s a good fella,” adds Sharum, the father of two middle-schoolers. “Sometimes folks need a little helping hand. He didn’t ask for any help at all, and he took responsibility for what he had done. ... I had to pry it out of him what he needed.”
This past week, Sharum attended a luncheon in Raleigh with Gov. Bev Perdue at the Governor’s Mansion. He was there with 14 others to receive the 2012 Governor’s Award for Excellence for Outstanding Service.
The award recognizes state employees who exhibit service and initiative far above the normal requirements of their job.
It’s the highest honor a state employee can receive.
But Sharum will tell you, the honor for him came in helping a father and his little girl.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.