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Richard Sanders, a big man whose service to the community matched his size, died on Monday after a long illness.

Sanders was a two-term Henderson County judge, serving from 2011 to 2019.

Former County Clerk Gwen Moffeit, whose office was across the hall in the Courthouse Annex said Sanders was an excellent leader for the county.

"He had a servant's heart," Moffeit said. "He was so encouraging to the employees."

Moffeit was present at most of the commissioners court meetings during Sanders' two terms said he maintained authority while putting the public at ease

"He was a kind man and so personable," Moffeit said. "He was a dear friend and I will cherish memories of working with him."

For many years, Sanders ran a construction business, an experience that he said gave him greater perspective when entering public office.

“I think working in the private sector, as well as in the public sector, gives me an advantage that a lot of people don’t have,” Sanders said. “I’ve seen both sides of the issue, and I’ve signed both the front and the back of a paycheck. These things are very important when you’re deciding critical issues that the county is going to face.”

Sanders said he first thought of running for public office when he had the opportunity to drive, then California governor, Ronald Reagan to a rally in Dallas.

 “It was then I decided I wanted to have some role in public service. He inspired me very much,” Sanders said.

Sanders' first race for county judge ended in a Republican Primary runoff loss to David Holstein in 2002. But he sharpened his political skills working seven years for 5th District Congressman Jeb Hensarling as his Athens-based regional director.

Sanders said his years working for Hensarling helped prepare him for office.

“I think it was invaluable," Sanders said after his 2010 win. "Congressman Hensarling is a man who has high moral character. He’s a family man and has always helped me in any way he could,” Sanders said. “He was very instrumental in me winning tonight. He has instilled a lot of confidence in me.”

In August of 2017, Sanders announced that after much thought and conferring with his wife Kathy, he would not seek a third term. He looked back on his years in office favorably and commended the County Commissioners for keeping the tax rate relatively the same for six years.

"I want to thank all of the county employees I've worked with and how efficient they are, also the elected officials and department heads. It's been a real good working relationship." Sanders said.

"I always wanted to have a job where you got to help people, and try to make a difference in the community and the county."

Sanders is also remembered for his stand when an atheist group from Wisconsin tried to get a manger scene removed from the courthouse lawn. An article in New American magazine said "The response by county officials to the atheist group’s demands was quick and unanimous: the nativity scene will stay."

For much of his second term, Sanders was battling cancer, but continued to fulfill the duties of his office until the end of his term. On Jan. 1, 2019, he conducted the swearing in of his successor, Wade McKinney, who moved over from his Precinct 2 Commissioners seat, just to the left of Sanders.

In 2007, before his election as county judge, Sanders was named Citizen of the Year at the annual Athens Chamber of Commerce Banquet.

 The award goes to a resident who displays commendable commitment to Athens and the surrounding community. In presenting the honor, then Chamber President Gus Flener said “He’s just an excellent man. He’s done a lot of great work in this community.”

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