The passing of C. Thomas Whitt last week rekindled memories of one of the stickiest elections in Fresno County history.
Whitt -- who passed away at age 74 of natural causes related to Alzheimer's disease -- declared himself a write-in candidate and entered the 1974 sheriff's race after things got ugly between longtime Sheriff Melvin Willmirth and challenger Guy Langley, who had been a sergeant in the department.
In the primary that year, Langley posted an upset victory over Willmirth, and the two advanced to the November general election.
As the vote neared, however, Langley accused Willmirth of trying to frame him on a drug charge. Willmirth leveled a countercharge against Langley, claiming he was being set up in the heat of an election battle.
Enter Whitt, who spent a lifetime in law enforcement: three years as a sheriff's deputy, nearly two as a California Highway Patrol officer, more than a year as a Fresno police officer, and the rest as a criminology instructor at Fresno City College.
He was a professor when he jumped into the 1974 election. He ended up with the victory, attracting an astonishing 39,288 write-in votes. But a routine canvass of the ballots found massive errors, and a recount gave Langley a 773-vote victory.
Whitt went to court, citing voting irregularities. Accusations flew, and when Langley took the oath of office in January 1975, it was under a dark political cloud.
Then-Fresno County Superior Court Judge Hollis Best eventually voided the election, citing a laundry list of irregularities. Langley soon after was out, and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors eventually selected Harold "Hal" McKinney to fill the remainder of Langley's term.
McKinney went on to serve 12 years, and Whitt headed back to Fresno City College.
That brush with being the county's top cop was enough for many in town, who always would say Tom Whitt had been sheriff, recalled Whitt's son, Jeff.
"I just felt like my dad was the sheriff," Jeff Whitt said. "It was like he was Sheriff Taylor and I was Opie. It seemed like that my whole life."
But for Jeff and his sister, Tom Whitt was more than just a criminology instructor who played a role in one of Fresno County's many political dramas.
"He was a great man," Jeff Whitt said.
Among other things, he was a longtime Rotary Club member and served a long stint on the Educational Employees Credit Union's board of directors.