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Their three sons: For Father Day’s, a story on how paths converge

South Boston NewsSouth Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, Halifax Police Chief Stuart Comer and his son, Halifax County Sheriff Deputy Stephen Comer stand with their police cruisers.
Middle, Rev. Dr. Otis Dillard and son Rev. Rodney Dillard stand outside County Line Baptist Church in Vernon Hill. Above, Judge Joel C. Cunningham Sr. and son Joel Cunningham Jr. stand in front of the new expansion of the Halifax Courthouse. / June 17, 2021
Following in the footsteps of one’s father might be an old-time tradition — one that fades each passing year in a changing and uncertain world — but for some guys, it still feels right.

With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday, here are three stories of sons who are following the paths set by the fathers, with careers of service to the local community — as lawyers, law enforcement officers, and pastors.

The Cunninghams

Retired Circuit Judge Joel Cunningham Sr. began his career as a Legal Aid lawyer and 20 years later his son, Joel Cunningham Jr. serves as board president of the Virginia Legal Aid Society.

While in college, “the time came to get serious when I had a son and a daughter,” said Cunningham Sr.

Cunningham expressed he needed a way for his children to be properly educated and decided law would be the choice. A racist incident during college was a light bulb moment for his choice of careers. As a college sophomore, now-Judge Cunningham was denied access to a South Boston eatery because of the color of his skin. He had a gun pulled on him.

“Law is the way to deal with injustice and ensure justice,” said Cunningham.

“I remember when Dad was in law school, he brought me to work when I was five years old, then as a teenager he started to put me to work. I had to look up and find property deeds and read contracts,” said Cunningham Jr.

While helping his father at a young age, Cunningham Jr. was influenced by his father and decided he wanted to be a lawyer. Cunningham Jr. noticed while attending college law classes the terminology came easy to him.

“I had an advantage to understanding the legalese,” he said.

In the spring 1998, the same day that Cunningham Jr. passed the state Bar Exam, his father was named a general district judge. Cunningham Sr. served for approximately 10 years as general district judge and then another 10 years as Halifax County Circuit Court Judge.

Entering the world to be a successful lawyer while juggling time with your family is very tricky. Cunningham explained that a person must figure out what is important and cut out things that do not matter.

“I was extremely proud [when Joel Jr. became a lawyer] and worried because law is a jealous mistress. You cannot leave or neglect the law, the practice, or the clients,” said Cunningham.

He expressed it is very important to stay abreast of what is happening, stay disciplined, and pro-active in the law. A successful lawyer can’t wait until two days before trial to put a case together.

“You must anticipate the law, if it is likely to happen in court — it will,” said Cunningham.

In his time as a legal practitioner, did not have any lawyers in his family or senior partners to bounce strategies off of, or ask for advice — which made him work harder, said Cunningham.

“It has been a luxury having my father here to ask for advice and direction, especially the first five years,” said Cunningham Jr.

Within the first five years, Cunningham Jr. steered his focus to Social Security case law, due to prohibitions against arguing criminal cases before his father, the judge. His father stressed transparency and communication were essential to have a successful practice in a small town where word of mouth could ruin a reputation.

“If you cannot help someone, tell them why — don’t just say ‘No’ and offer to find someone who can help them,” said Cunningham, adding that’s how he helped his son’s practice grow.

“He has been successful beyond me and I’m very proud,” said Cunningham Sr.

After Cunningham Jr. passed the bar, he was fortunate to step right in and take on some of his father’s cases as his father transitioned into his new role as judge.

The Cunninghams gather regularly for dinner and have many pleasant debates. They usually agree in the overall best decision, but have different strategies for the same result.

“We may not see the strategy the same way, but we both share the same song sheet for more justice in America,” said Cunningham Sr.

The Comers

Putting your life on the line as a law enforcement officer is something that looms in the background every day. A police officer is the first one to witness terrible car accidents, murder scenes, and arrest perpetrators of horrible crimes. In career terms, it’s something a parent might want to protect their child from ever getting too close to.

It didn’t work out that way for Halifax Police Chief Stuart Comer and his son, Stephen, a rising officer who recently graduated from the police academy.

“I’m excited to get to work with my son,” said Comer.

This June, Stephen Comer will graduate from the Central Virginia Criminal Justice Academy, located in Lynchburg. The younger Comer has been hired by the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office, beginning his career just like his father.

“I’m confident in my son’s training and know he will do a good job,” said Comer.

Stuart Comer started his career in law enforcement when he joined the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office in 1995. Over the past 25 years, Comer served with the South Boston Police Department and Transportation Safety Agent (TSA) at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, following the 9/11 attacks. Prior to accepting the position of chief of police, Comer worked his way up the ranks serving as an officer, corporal, and sergeant for the Town of Halifax.

As for joining the police force, “it is something I knew I always wanted to do,” said Comer, adding it was a bit discouraging when he graduated high school at the age 18 and had to wait two years before he could enlist in the police academy.

“I was young, and two years seemed like a long way away. I thought I’d never be an officer,” said Comer, laughing looking back on how time flies.

In his view, a young person is better equipped than ever to be a great officer. They are open to new ideas and more flexible to changes, essential ingredients in the skill set of an effective officer.

“No two days are the same, and you have to learn to adapt to change to work in public service,” said Comer.

Stephen Comer always knew he wanted to be a police officer. “I had more of an inside look than my father did,” he said.

While attending Halifax County High School, Stephen worked for three years with Virginia Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) Authority. He was a special agent who would attempt to purchase alcohol while underage.

“I had to look young, if not younger,” noted the younger Comer, who said having a clean-shaven face and short hair was part of the disguise for attempting to purchase alcohol under age.

While attending police academy for the past six months, Stephen learned a lot about how things constantly change in law enforcement — how standards in protocol have changed in the past decades.

“Dad and I run scenarios back and forth all the time,” said Stephen, adding he shares lots of techniques he learns at the academy with his father.

He has earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Criminal Justice and Social Justice and graduated from the Academy this week. Stephen Comer aspires to move up the ranks, just like his father, with opportunities in general investigation and with the Drug Task Force. There are three more officers completing the training with Comer who are joining the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s a tough job and it gets harder because the laws and techniques are always changing. We continuously have to get better,” said the elder Comer.

“I’m excited and proud. I think he will do a great. I will try to continue to offer assistance,” said Comer.

The Dillards

The decision to become a pastor was a hard struggle which lasted for many years before Rev. Dr. Otis Dillard changed the direction of his career.

“I had the calling from God to enter the ministry, but I was making a good living driving trucks. I struggled for five years,” said Dillard.

His wife worried it would be impossible for them and their eight children to survive if he stopped driving trucks, with good reason. Dillard earned about $50,000 back in 1976 — that was a lot of money to turn away with a family to support.

“My wife said, we’d lose everything,” said Dillard, adding he hauled freight for 18 years.

Finally, the time came to take a leap of faith. Dillard expressed the calling from God came day and night, sapping his ability to work hard in his job at the time. Today, Dillard serves as pastor at County Line Baptist Church in Vernon Hill. His son, Rodney Dillard joined the ministry in 2009 and serves the congregation at Zion Hill Baptist Church in Virgilina.

When Rodney Dillard felt the call to become a pastor, his father was neither supportive nor unsupportive.

“Daddy, I’m called to preach,” said Rodney Dillard — adding his father just walked away and didn’t say anything.

Rodney Dillard is the warehouse manager at Morrisette, located in Greensboro N.C., and has been employed there for the past 21 years. While working at the warehouse, Rodney expressed he had a deep compelling feeling to help people.

“I saw what my father was doing and how he made a difference in people lives,” said the younger Dillard.

It was about a year later after Rodney first approached his father about his calling from God to join the ministry.

“This time I was crying, I was troubled because I wasn’t doing what I was called to do,” said Rodney, adding his father never persuaded him one way or the other.

“I told him he had to make his own path and be comfortable with what God would want you to do and this may not be what you want,” said Dillard.

On Sunday, both pastors hold church services in their parking lots with a drive-up format. The parking lot services have been very popular with their congregations and the pastors have seen an increase in attendance. While some things may have changed during the pandemic, folks trying to hold the same seat every Sunday works the same outdoors.

“Even though people are not sitting in their usual pew, they try to get into the same parking space,” said Rodney Dillard with a grin and slide of hand, illustrating how some members manipulate the parking lot.

The congregation sizes vary for the two pastors. Otis Dillard serves about 200 people at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. Rodney Dillard serves about 40 people every Sunday at 11 a.m. Feeling the spirit and delivering a well-received sermon every Sunday is a pressure felt by both pastors.

“I’m still nervous today, people will come back and respond to your sermon and that puts more pressure on you for next Sunday,” said Otis Dillard.

Another difficulty is pulling out a different aspect of a sermon previously delivered. Rodney Dillard explained that social media has made it really hard to have an original sermon that someone has not heard before.

They both agreed that God has called them to lead different churches with different types of congregations. They believe when someone finds their church, they are lifers and will continue to come back. There was never any concerns of competition.

“God has blessed him to lead a group of people and my group may be different,” said Otis Dillard.

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Hold UP did i read sherrif went to a academy... these guys are not required to have a 4yr college degree to become a Sherrif? This kid has limited life experiences other than being a High School ABC informant.

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