He was kind. He was fair. Over and over, the people who knew former Monroe County Sheriff Rick Roth repeated those two facts about the top man in Keys law enforcement. He passed this week, on Oct. 15, 2019.
He hired onto the force in 1965, as a radio dispatcher. He rose through the ranks to road officer, detective and sergeant in Marathon. In 1990, the governor appointed Roth to finish the term of his predecessor, J. Allison DeFoor, who had left the job more than two years before his term ended. Because more than two years were left on his term, Roth still had to run for election. He got the two-year nod and kept winning elections for a total of four, four-year terms, serving as sheriff from 1990 to 2008.
Current Sheriff Rick Ramsay served as Roth’s undersheriff for nine years.
“He was patient, soft-spoken and a diplomatic person,” Ramsay said. “He taught me about finding the common ground in the middle. It was a good experience.”
It is a hallmark of Roth’s presence, Ramsay said, that he was and will be remembered long after stepping down from office.
“People asked me all the time, ‘How’s he doing?’”
Ramsay said, adding that to this day when he’s introduced, sometimes the speaker mistakenly calls him by his predecessor’s name. “That’s not a bad thing. You know you’ve left a good legacy when people remember your name 11 years after you’ve stepped down from office. I considered him a friend and we spoke and visited often.”
Roth’s career wasn’t only long-lived, but also interesting and innovative. While he met his wife in the Keys while serving in the Navy and stationed in Key West in the late ’50s, he would leave the islands to return to his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They would come back on the heels of Hurricane Betsy, a Cat 3, in 1965. His first day on the job as a radio dispatcher was coordinating disaster relief. In the 1970s, the agency fought a war on home turf to end drug smuggling. During the ’80s, it dealt with a massive influx of Mariel Boat Lift immigrants. The jail on Stock Island was built on Roth’s watch, too. He also started the animal farm under the sheriff’s headquarters.
“If it was a stressful day, Rick would just go out and walk around the farm for a while,” said Ramsay. “He loved animals.”
While Roth routinely gave the credit for the Trauma Star program to then undersheriff Bill McDonald, it was during his tenure that the program came to be and he was enormously proud.
By the beginning of 2009, Roth was fully retired and had sprouted a healthy beard. He spent his time in his woodshop, turning beautiful canisters and creating clever wooden clocks. He also volunteered at the Wild Bird Center in Marathon, building cages and rescuing wayward and injured animals. He tended a beautiful garden at his home on Grassy Key and was also an accomplished mason, building the home’s custom fireplace.
Roth lost his wife of 57 years, Sandra Handley Roth, in 2016. He is survived by daughters Cathy North of the Keys and Deanna Roth of Stuart, and granddaughter Rayna Roth, who is a student at Florida State University.
They remember their dad and grandfather with lots of love.
Deanna said he taught her to sail … or, rather, have fun doing it. “He’d tell me to jump off the bow and be ready to scoop me up at the stern. He taught me gymnastics and would challenge me to do better. He’d say, ‘I bet you can’t do it for 30 seconds’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, I can!’ I didn’t realize until much later that a lot of things he taught me was basically beginners’ yoga.”
Cathy’s favorite story of Roth is about the time he was, to the untrained eye, caught littering. Every morning, her dad would take a bag and pick up garbage on one side of Guava Avenue before carefully placing it next to the stop sign, crossing the highway and getting a newspaper. Then he would cross back, pick up the bag and pick up garbage on the other side of the avenue.
“Well, one day, some man saw him putting the bag down by the stop sign and said, ‘I don’t know how you do it where you’re from, but we don’t litter in the Keys.’ And my dad said, ‘You’re right. I’m sorry.’ He let the other guy ‘win’ because it was the right thing to do,” Cathy remembers, smiling,
There will be a service on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 3 p.m. at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Wild Bird Center in Marathon or the Monroe County Sheriff’s Animal Farm.
“He didn’t get angry very often, but he was very protective of the Sheriff Office’s image,” said Sheriff Rick Ramsay. “If somebody did something to discredit the agency, he took it very personally. Credibility and the community’s trust was very important to Sheriff Roth.”
“Rick Roth deserves the credit for the positive impact the sheriff’s office has with the Keys’ community — especially with the youth organizations,” said longtime friend Mike Puto, who was with Roth in the final vehicle to cross the old 7 Mile Bridge in 1982. “He was really a neat guy. He is going to be missed.”
“My three-word definition for Rick Roth is ‘humble public servant,’” said his friend Brian Schmitt. “He gave so much of his life to the people of the Keys and did it with such humility. He did it for the right reasons. He was just an honorable guy.”
“He’s with Sandy now,” said Roth’s neighbor, Chris Sutton. “I just know they are kissing and hugging and she is taking care of him.”
“One of my favorite moments was waiting for my grandfather to get home from work,” said Rayna Roth, his granddaughter. “I’d see his patrol car and go hide. I’d hear his boots coming up the stairs and him calling, ‘Where’s Rayna?’ I would be giggling and just so excited for him to find me.”
“He was a family friend,” said MCSO Lt. Nancy Alvarez. “He was just a great leader and very down-to-earth. I think that’s what drew people to him.”