‘Show Respect to Gain Respect’

By Liz Carmack

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Former Falls County Sheriff reflects on 43-year career in law enforcement

As the summer day stretched on, the pleas from Falls County sheriffs’ deputies and City of Rosebud police went unheeded. The man threatening to kill himself remained in his home while journalists and curious neighbors gathered, held back by crime scene tape.

Falls County Sheriff Ben Kirk monitored the Rosebud standoff as he worked on payroll in his Marlin office. He knew his deputies had things under control. But the hours wore on, and the crowd of onlookers grew by the dozens. The man did not budge.

By early evening, Kirk decided this waiting game was over. He arrived at the scene, queried his deputies for the latest details and then walked toward the home, unarmed. 

His eyes adjusted to the dim light inside as he quickly surveyed the living room. A coffee table stood in front of him. A dark hallway stretched beyond it to the left. As he maneuvered around the table, the man burst at him from the shadows with his arm cocked to throw a punch. Kirk grabbed him around the waist, tackling him to the ground. The hours-long ordeal was over.

“I made up my mind that we were not going to be there all night,” recalled Kirk, a soft-spoken man of few words. The standoff occurred a year or so after he took office in 2001. He retired in December 2016.  

At six feet tall and 230 pounds, Kirk’s decisive, calm resolve served him well that night as it did throughout his 43-year career in law enforcement. He often worked unarmed and never had to fire his service weapon. 

“He had that ability to instantly know how far does this need to be taken, considering people’s safety, liabilities … ,” said Steve Sharp, whose seven-plus years as Falls County judge overlapped with Kirk’s tenure. “He could calculate all that in a split second and make the right decision instead of escalating something that didn’t need to be escalated.”

As a native of Falls County, southeast of Waco, Kirk studied welding in high school and, upon graduation, worked as a welder until Sheriff Brady Pamplin asked him in 1973 to join the county as a dispatcher. The sheriff quickly promoted him to deputy and soon after to the chief deputy position. For a few years in the late 1990s, Kirk worked as a patrol sergeant and chief of police for Marlin. He rejoined county government after community leaders asked him to run for sheriff in 2000. 

During his tenure, Kirk served on the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas Board of Directors. He also served for several years on the Texas Association of Counties Workers’ Compensation Self-Insurance Fund Board and the TAC Risk Management Pool Board. 

Hard Work and Integrity

As a child growing up on his grandparents’ farm east of Marlin, he and his seven siblings’ days were filled with school, chores and family. There were cows to milk, eggs to collect, and hogs, cattle and chickens to feed. Kirk enjoyed working with his hands and became the farm’s mechanic, learning along the way as he repaired trucks, tractors and other equipment. He also spent time in the kitchen cooking alongside his mother and grandmother. His love for baking continued into adulthood, and today county employees lament that when Kirk left office, his banana pudding went with him.

Since Kirk was a young man, his Christian faith, his church and his family have been central to his life, and many of the qualities he acquired at a young age — responsibility, honesty, cooperation, respect — have shaped his career in law enforcement.

It’s simple, said Kirk. “I learned early on in life it’s how you treat others. You have to show respect to gain respect; that’s the bottom line.”

“Ben’s upbringing is a very good tribute to his family. It was very evident in the way he conducted himself in his professional life,” said Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson, who has known Kirk for four decades. 

It’s simple, said Kirk. “I learned early on in life it’s how you treat others. You have to show respect to gain respect; that’s the bottom line.”

Treating others with respect helps ensure success as a peace officer and leader, Kirk said. “It’s how you carry yourself, how you get along with your fellow officers. You have to be up front and honest with them. You can’t be overbearing. If you do, you’ll push officers away.”

His even-temperedness allowed him to defuse several tense situations over the years. “I try to talk my way through things,” he said. 

Kirk insisted that in most instances officers can de-escalate confrontations with others if they keep their voices low, avoid arguing and simply listen. “I’ve had individuals approach me and want to fight, and sometimes individuals just want a listening ear. We as peace officers — it’s best first to lend a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on,” he said. “That goes a long way.” 

That approach combined with his skills in observation, deduction and intuition has enabled Kirk to solve dozens of crimes during his career, including several murders, major burglaries and illegal drug cases. 

Sharp said he respects Kirk’s practical problem-solving and detection skills. Early on in Sharp’s first term as county judge, he met Kirk on rural county property to examine a crime scene. Someone had cut the chain securing a gate and gained access to the land, a radio tower, county vehicles and other equipment. Sharp said he started looking for signs of the intruders and noticed tire tracks on the property. 

“I was this 36-year-old attorney and had been practicing 10 years. I was proud of myself that I saw the tracks in the dirt,” Sharp said, with a chuckle. “Ben gets there and starts noticing the dew knocked off the leaves of grass and follows where the truck went and determines it even had a trailer. Then he says, ‘They took a battery out of this tractor, they did this, and this.’ Stuff I never would have seen. I’m standing there with my mouth agape.”

Kirk had logged decades of crime scene investigations at this point. “He had been in law enforcement longer than I’d been alive,” Sharp said. 

Solutions to Budget Challenges

The 2012 Census of Agriculture recorded 1,263 farms in Falls County, totaling more than 382,600 acres of pastureland and cropland. In such a rural community, agricultural lands that are exempt from property taxes reduce the tax base to fund county services.

So Kirk’s on-the-job challenges were not just solving crimes and keeping the peace. He also had to make the most of a tight budget while trying to address the many needs of his office. For example, when the county lost its contract with the private firm that was running its 106-bed jail, Kirk took over as warden, and he became the on-call maintenance man, saving taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars by repairing the jail’s plumbing, its intercom system, washers, dryers and air conditioners himself. He even mowed the lawn. 

 “We often have to do miracles with the little money we have,” Wilson explained. “As sheriff, you have to work with the budget that’s given to you. That’s where Ben’s people skills came in. He was a team player — a ‘we’ person.”

Kirk said that it was important to maintain good relationships with his fellow Falls County officials. How did he accomplish that? It’s simple, he said: “Be nice. I can’t put it any other way. It’s not going to benefit anyone if you storm out of the room. Just be up front. Talk. The only way you’re going to get anything resolved is through communication.”

Kirk communicated openly with the county judge and commissioners about what was necessary for his office, “You have to let them know the needs of the department.” 

But sometimes difficult choices have to be made while considering those needs. “You need a decent budget to have decent officers,” Kirk said. “And you have to have patrol vehicles to respond to the public’s needs.”

Shortly after Sharp took office, the 2008 financial crisis hit. Shrinking county resources translated into cuts in Kirk’s funding. “We just didn’t have as much (tax revenue) coming in as we used to,” Sharp said. Kirk and Sharp sat down and hammered out the cuts. “He always put the county first — we don’t want to waste money. But if we need something, we need it.”

Open communication with constituents is equally important, Kirk advised. “Be up front with the public as well as your counterparts. That carries you a long way.”

Lifetime of Respect

Wearing his usual tan felt Resistol, a starched and pressed long-sleeved button-down white shirt and 511s, a silk tie and crocodile Tony Llamas, Kirk established a reputation as a sharp dresser. He always maintained this professional appearance, whether attending a meeting or dragging the Marlin City Lake for a body. It earned him the unofficial title of “Best Dressed Sheriff in Texas.” Likewise, his professional accomplishments and the way he comported himself in achieving them has earned him a lifetime of respect from those he served and his peers.

 “At the end of the day, I never worried about where Ben was gonna stand when it came to enforcing the law because he truly saw the blind scales of justice,” Wilson said. “Whoever you were it didn’t weigh on Ben. He went out, and he did his job, and he was a professional, and he did it well.” 

Today, at just over a year into retirement, Kirk reflects on his career with gratitude. “To be voted into office by the citizens of the county (four times) — that was one highlight I will carry with me to my grave.”

He added that only recently has he felt relief from the weight and underlying stress that comes with the office of sheriff. His routine today includes spending more time with JoAnn, his wife of 45 years, his two daughters, two grandchildren and his 100-year-old mother, who still lives on the Kirk family farm where he grew up. 

Farm chores are still part of his daily routine. Only now, he can pause long enough while feeding his mother’s calves to notice their quirks. He said one pushy calf won’t leave him alone until he scratches her forehead. Kirk shook his head and said, “I guess I never had time before to notice things like that.”