George Bailey: It's a wonderful life

Former Albemarle Sheriff George Bailey has more in common with the Jimmy Stewart holiday classic movie than the lead character's name.

Sheriff Bailey, too, grew up in an area where he had deep roots and knew everyone. He built his home on land called Bailey's Retreat, which was once owned by his uncle who had been the constable in Ivy.

And much like the movie, the man who was the county sheriff for 20 years is a connection with an era now long past.

When he started school in 1933, "I walked down to the Ivy Depot– they didn't have any 250– we walked to Morgantown Road to catch a bus," he says. When U.S. 250 was built in 1937, "That was a big difference."

And as one who had to walk the proverbial X-number of miles to get to school, he's peeved with this aspect of modern life. "Now a bus goes 100 yards and picks up somebody," he complains. "There's no reason children can't walk 100 yards."

Bailey enjoyed freedom as a child of the '30s that would horrify the contemporary safety-conscious parent. When he was 10, he'd go to church at St. Paul's Ivy and then hitchhike to the movies at the Paramount Theater. His parents "didn't think anything about letting us thumb into town," he says.

And when he got there, he adds, there would be 100 people lined up to get in.

Unlike the Jimmy Stewart character who dreams of far-off expeditions, this George Bailey never wanted to get out of Albemarle. He bought Uncle Charlie's land in the 1940s before he went into the military. "I knew I'd want to come back here," he says.

While serving in Alaska, he discovered he liked training people. Back home, he started working as a deputy in 1955, and along with five other officers and the sheriff, policed Albemarle's 740 square miles.

The first race for sheriff in 1967 was the hardest, he recalls, sitting in his study with walls lined with photos of notables such as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and former presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. "The Daily Progress the day before said the race was 50-50," he recalls. "I came in with 85 percent of the vote."

Recently, he attended the 20th anniversary of the Albemarle police department, which he served as chief for one year. While Bailey never had more than 30 officers and had to battle to get more, now he thinks the force's 125 officers are too many. "Albemarle has a very low crime rate," he notes.

He groans when asked if he's been to any cockfights lately. In 1976, the state police raided one at Ingleside Farm, and arrested 11 prominent citizens of the Commonwealth– all of whom got off because cockfighting is not illegal in Virginia. Bailey was there, and still seems steamed that the state police came onto his territory without informing him they were going to bust a party he was attending.

Nope, no more cockfights. These days, he hangs with his two donkeys, Jenny and Jose. He and Elizabeth, his wife of 55 years, watch the deer against a backdrop of spectacular Blue Ridge views at Bailey's Retreat.

A wonderful life, indeed.

Age: 77

What brought you here? Born here. My family came from Donegal, Ireland, and settled in Albemarle County in 1740.

What's worst about living here? I liked it better when Albemarle was more rural.

Favorite hangout? Aunt Sarah's Pancake House for breakfast with other retired law enforcement officers.

Most overrated virtue? If virtue means goodness and moral excellence, it cannot be overrated.

What would people be surprised to know about you? For four years in the '30s I walked 1.5 miles to Ivy Depot to catch the school bus to go to Meriwether Lewis School. Then Route 250 was built, and buses came closer to my home.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My habit of waking up at 5:30am. I don't need to do that anymore now that I'm retired.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Being the elected sheriff of Albemarle County.

What do people find most annoying about you? I'm opinionated.

Whom do you admire? Senator George Allen

Favorite book? Any book about General George S. Patton

What subject causes you to rant? The killing of young people on the highways. The state legislature and local authorities are not placing enough emphasis on how to prevent these accidents.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The possibility that the cause and cure of cancer will be found

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The Unites States' involvement in wars in foreign countries

What do you drive? Nissan 2004, '99 Toyota Avalon, and a '66 Oldsmobile convertible that belonged to my mother

What's in your car CD player right now? Irish sing-along

What's your next journey? To Richmond to visit my son, his wife and my four grandchildren

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? Coming from church, I ran a stop sign at Ivy, and a state trooper gave me a ticket.

What do you regret? I don't know. I've had a pretty good life.

Favorite comfort food? Rice pudding with raisins

What's always in your refrigerator? Skim milk

Must-see TV? 60 Minutes, NBC news

Favorite cartoon? Beetle Bailey

 Describe a perfect day. Picnic with my grandchildren on the patio by the pool and watch the sun go down behind the Blue Ridge Mountains

Walter Mitty fantasy? I have already realized my fantasy. The movie was It's a Wonderful Life.

Who'd play you in the movie? Jimmy Stewart played me.

Most embarrassing moment? When I was in the Army stationed in Alaska during the Korean War, I reported to the captain for my monthly pay and could not remember my serial number. I got gigged.

Best advice you ever got? From my friend, Arnold Smith (now deceased), on business ventures.

Favorite bumper sticker? Virgil Goode for Congress

George Bailey