Head of Highway Patrol's Hudson office nearing retirement
First Sgt. Gary McClelland's desk at the N.C. Highway Patrol office in Hudson is gun-metal grey, the kind you find in a Marine barracks. Numerous awards and certificates line one wall of his smallish office. On another wall is a photo of the Troop B Caisson Unit, a horse-drawn carriage that is rolled out during trooper funerals and that he started to honor his fallen comrades.
McClelland, 48, is winding down his 25-year career with the Highway Patrol. His office will soon be occupied by a new guy in charge. McClellan could have called it quits on Aug. 21, but decided to stay in the Hudson base until Nov. 1, when he will finally turn in his badge and gun, and ride into the sunset.
"My wife and I plan to move to Hawaii in 18 months," he said.
McClelland's military background served him well. Born in Statesville in 1966, and a 1984 Statesville High graduate, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1984. He pulled duty in Libya and was assigned to Parris Island as a drill instructor. But when he received orders to go to Okinawa, he thought of the 6-month-old son he would leave behind and decided it was time to settle down.
A car wreck he was involved in at the time gave him his first glimpse into the Highway Patrol.
"I was impressed with their appearance and professionalism," he said.
Basic School for the Highway Patrol is notoriously rigorous, even for a seasoned ex-Marine.
"It was 28 weeks; Parris Island basic training was 13 weeks," he said. "The academics were challenging."
He graduated from Basic School in November 1988. His first assignment was in Mount Airy, where he spent four years before transferring to Greensboro. In 1994 he went from there, with a force of 30 troopers, to Camden County, with four troopers and only one traffic light.
"It was definitely a culture shock," he said.
With his wife, Paige, he moved to Catawba County in 1997. In 2005, he was promoted to sergeant and transferrred to Iredell and Alexander counties before arriving in Caldwell County in 2009.
McClelland estimates he has written about 36,000 traffic tickets, 17,000 warning tickets, and charged 3,000 people with driving while impaired. He has drawn his gun more times than he can count, although he has never fired it while on patrol. He has been hospitalized twice while on duty and pulled over at least five drivers hell-bent on killing him. One driver in particular stands out.
"It was 1 a.m.," he said. "I got behind a guy in Elkin, but he waited until he got behind a Food Lion, where it was dark, to stop. As I approached, he wouldn't put his hands on the wheel. I literally put my gun in his ear and pulled him out. He had a .38- caliber revolver near his hand. I told him he didn't look like the type to kill a Highway Patrol officer. He said, 'That's why you always have to be careful. You never know, do you?'
"The way he said it made the hair on my neck stand up."
McClelland has met all the goals he set for himself.
"I wanted to be a trooper for 15 years, then get promoted to sergeant. I did that. I wanted to be a first sergeant after four years. I did that. I wanted to retire as a district first sergeant. I will retire in that position."
Gone are the 50- to 70-hour days. He works 34 hours a week now but continues to mentor, cajole and inspire his fellow troopers.
Sandra Pritchard is the office assistant but has been there longer than anyone. She and the others say McClelland's work ethic is contagious, as is his ever-present smile and booming laugh.
Pritchard: "He's so compassionate and caring about what he does. His heart's always been in it, it's evident. He works 24-7."
Sgt. J.L. Womack: "He's been my mentor since I've been here. I've learned a lot from him."
Trooper Cliff Mangum: "He's very detail-oriented. He's like a fly-trap, he doesn't forget anything.
"He's still a knucklehead though."