By Kevin Redding
On the Saturday before Easter in 2003, Suffolk County sheriff-elect, Errol Toulon Jr. (D) sat in the den of his Lake Grove home and said to God, “If you give me a chance, I’m going to do something great.”
Toulon, who had dropped from 240 pounds to about 140 and could barely walk, was recovering from a Whipple procedure to remove a cancerous tumor on his pancreas. It had been his second battle with cancer in less than 10 years — in 1996, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — an ordeal that was followed by MRSA, a type of staph infection, and pneumonia. Doctors and family members expected the worst.
A year later, in the spring of 2004, the Rikers Island corrections officer-turned-captain enrolled at Suffolk County Community College. He went on to receive his master’s degree in business administration from Dowling College and an advanced certificate in Homeland Security management from Long Island University.
In the midst of his appointment as deputy commissioner of operations for the New York City Correction Department in 2014, Toulon pursued and completed his doctorate in educational administration and took leadership courses at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
On Dec. 4, after a last-minute campaign to be Suffolk County sheriff against opponent Larry Zacarese (R), Toulon, 55, became the first African-American elected official in a nonjudicial countywide position in Long Island’s history.
“I still don’t think I’m finished to be honest with you,” Toulon said, laughing. “I am very fortunate and I don’t take any day for granted.”
He said he didn’t even know the landmark aspect of his victory until the counting of absentee ballots was close to being completed. The race was too close to call after Election Day Nov. 7, leaving the tightly contested election hanging for nearly a month.
“I think that can help to show that any individual, no matter what ethnicity or gender, can achieve anything they want,” Toulon said. “But I don’t think, necessarily, the color of my skin will matter at all. I think my work experience and work ethic will show that those who voted for me made the right choice, and I think those that didn’t vote for me will feel I can do the job and have the best interests of the people.”
Those closest to him said despite the odds stacked against him, Toulon’s win makes perfect sense.
“He’s a rare breed of person — you couldn’t ask for a better man for the position,” said Ralph Grasso, a retired New York Police Department officer and friend of Toulon’s for 26 years. “Anything he puts his mind to, he achieves.”
Grasso was far from the only colleague to heap praise on the sheriff-elect.
“Errol’s always shown through his actions how great a leader he is,” said Keith Taylor, who worked with him in the department of corrections for two years. “When it came to officers who were victims of inmate violence, he always made sure to visit them in the hospital, and always without any fanfare. He’s dealt with a lot of adversities and always handles them with dignity, grace and strength.”
Meg Malangone, a registered Republican in Lake Grove who works in the business office at TBR News Media, said Toulon is the first Democrat she’s voted for in 40 years.
“Not only is he one of the most incredible individuals I know, I honestly felt he was the best man for the job,” said Malangone, whose son was friends with Toulon’s sons growing up. “Errol is a wonderful human being. He is a strong, kind, smart and gentle man. He is not afraid to make tough decisions and is thoughtful in his approach to problems and solutions. He is going to be a fantastic sheriff for Suffolk County.”
When he officially starts his new job in January, Toulon said he’s determined to manage the sheriff’s office effectively and utilize skills from his career in corrections to tackle what he considers “the big three”: gangs, the opioid crisis and working with the community to develop a strong re-entry program for those incarcerated to help with housing and jobs when they leave the jail. He said outgoing Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C) has given him a tour of the facilities, he’s met with staff and he looks forward to working collaboratively with district attorney-elect, Tim Sini (D).
“There is nobody with the type of integrity he has,” said Keith Davies, Toulon’s campaign manager, who was admittedly nervous to start a full-fledged race two months before the election with a candidate he didn’t know. “But then I got to know Errol and I knew I was working for someone that is the right person to be in the position. He kept us motivated and working hard. He’s a good man.”
“There is nobody with the type of integrity [Toulon] has.”
— Keith Davies
Despite his lifelong career in law enforcement, Toulon said the reason he thinks he was elected, and had such large support from community members on both sides of the aisle, can be traced to his second life as a coach of various sports in the last 20 years.
An avid hockey fan who even created a program around the sport within the corrections facility, Toulon coaches ice hockey at the Long Island Gulls Amateur Hockey Association in Jericho and served as a roller hockey coach at The Sports Arena in St. James. He has also coached baseball for the Sachem Youth Advisory Group; soccer for Middle Country Children’s Soccer League; and basketball for Middle Country.
“I’ve tried to make sure it wasn’t about winning or losing with the kids,” Toulon said. “I thought that even the kid who probably wasn’t the best person on the team should’ve gotten an opportunity to play. We won or lost together. A lot of parents asked me to be their child’s coach each season and I felt very honored by that.”
But Toulon’s overall achievements can be traced further back to the 1960s and ’70s in the South Bronx, where he grew up with his younger brother, Anthony, and parents, Errol Sr. and Alma, and attended Cardinal Hayes High School.
“He was always a go-getter,” recalled Errol Toulon Sr., 78, a retired deputy warden of the New York City Department of Correction. “He always volunteered within the community, played baseball and just always gave it his all. We couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Toulon’s mother, 74, who worked in education, remembered her sons being extremely protective of her, not even letting her walk to the local tennis court by herself.
“They were like my guardian angels,” Alma Toulon said. “I’m so proud of Errol Jr. He always does anything anyone asks him to do. He is a wonderful kid … I still call him a kid, he’s 55.”
Toulon pointed to his parents, who both went back to school later in life to get their bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as his two biggest heroes, though he also credited another: Willie Randolph, the former New York Yankees second baseman and New York Mets manager. Toulon came to know Randolph well working as a bat boy for the Yankees in 1979 and 1980.
“I was a diehard Yankees fan, didn’t live too far from the stadium at the time and went for an interview in January 1979,” said Toulon, who fondly remembered being around players like Randolph, Catfish Hunter and Thurman Munson. “They all treated me like I was a valuable part of the team. And that really carried over to my own managerial style that every member of the organization — no matter where you are in the chain — is important to making the team as successful as possible.”
Toulon’s son, Justin, 28, who works in the film and television field in Georgia, called his father the hardest working and most driven person he knows and said Toulon instilled in him the importance of respect.
“I don’t think I’ve ever brought somebody to meet my father that hasn’t said afterward, ‘That’s a great guy,’” Justin Toulon said. “My dad always leaves that impression. You just respect him and he has this charming ability about him. People gravitate toward him.”
Speaking from experience on that front is Toulon’s second wife, Tina, who he met in 2014, and married a year and a half ago. His first wife, Susan, passed away 29 years into their marriage.
“I’m his No. 1 fan,” Tina Toulon said. “He just has this wonderful aura about him: that great smile and those great eyes, full of life. He has an incredible loyalty about him and I love how he connects with people. He wants to always leave things better than how he found them … so I know he can do this job well.”