Those 20 years as sheriff can be traced back to a gathering of several local businessmen who "started working on him" in 1987 when they decided Helton should be the county's next sheriff, according to Preston Blackmon, one of those businessmen and the master of ceremonies during the reception for Helton.
"'I've been a trooper for 20-plus years,'" Blackmon said quoting Helton in jest while revising history, "'and I don't know what a sheriff does.'"
But Helton had been watching Andy of Mayberry on TV and caught on quickly, Blackmon continued, then adding a serious note that Helton's approach to law enforcement had included patience, wise leadership and just enforcement mixed with humanity.
Helton does like the Andy Griffith show, Blackmon said. The retiring sheriff is a significant reason for a gentle lifestyle here, he said.
Marshall County has been blessed to have him for 20 years," Blackmon said. Being such a sheriff "is like being a school teacher; the rewards come slow."
As is his nature, Helton let others do the talking and Blackmon was recognized as the sheriff's spokesman during the Sunday afternoon reception in the training room at the sheriff's department building.
Among those attending were: Charlie Boyd who served as Helton's campaign treasurer for each of the five elections; Joe Moss, former proprietor of Forrest Landing and Sugar and Spice; Billy and Jolene Jett, long-time supporters; his wife, Jean; and their daughter and her husband, Tracie and Dale Oechsel.
Compliments and kidding continued during the reception in the sheriff's office training room where state Rep. Eddie Bass recalled an exchange with Helton. Bass is a former Giles County sheriff.
Helton retired from the Tennessee Highway Patrol as a sergeant to run for sheriff and shortly after he was elected, Bass recalled telling Helton that he'd just become "'a real police officer.'
"He didn't agree with me at the time," Bass said. "I think he does now."
The state representative and state Sen. Bill Ketron planned to have a resolution honoring Helton at the reception, but they couldn't get enough votes, Bass said to the laughter of the audience. The state Legislature has been out of session for more than a month.
Ketron said they'd have a resolution adopted when the General Assembly reconvenes, and the senator proceeded to share warm recollections about the county's senior lawman.
The two lawmakers had been dedicating bridges in Marshall County on a hot Saturday several weeks ago when they stopped at the store in Mooresville for a cool drink and the shelter of an air-conditioned building. That evening while reviewing his notes for the day, Ketron realized he'd walked out of the store without paying for the Sun-Drop. He called Jerry Williams, knowing the roads superintendent lives near the store, and asked if he could pay the storeowner for the drink. Williams did and the next time the senator saw the senator, Helton told Ketron that he wouldn't be arrested that day.
"I probably owe him a case of Sun-Drop," Ketron said.
County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett honored Helton with his declaration that the county is grateful for the lawman's 20 years of service and kind leadership.
Sheriff "is a very important job," Liggett said, noting the scores of people at the reception probably have "mixed emotions" about the day: Sorry to lose him in office; but pleased with the years they enjoyed with his service as sheriff.
Chief Deputy Billy Lamb conducted the last part of the ceremony by presenting Helton with a plaque bearing Helton's badge.
"He's been like a daddy to me for 20 years," Lamb said of the man he'd served with in law enforcement and administration.
The afternoon reception included a display of gifts and a luncheon as friends shared personal stories, admired Helton's new clock, old photos of his early career and were the friends and family that they are.