NASHVILLE - When Parole Board Chairman Charles Traughber steps down this week after working with offenders for more than 40 years, he says his fondest memories will be of those he helped work their way back into society.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Traughber said he's often stopped by ex-offenders who want to express their gratitude.
"Twenty years ago, y'all gave me a chance," he recalled one person saying.
Traughber has been working with offenders and ex-offenders since 1969, when he was a prison counselor at the then-Tennessee State Penitentiary, which closed in 1992 after the opening of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
He worked his way up to director of counselors before becoming a charter member of the full-time parole board that was established in 1972, then eventually the board's chairman, the title he has held the past 30 years.
"I tried to learn as much as I could and apply myself," said Traughber, who has worked under eight governors.
Now 70, Traughber has overseen countless hearings, including the only parole hearing of one of Tennessee's most notorious offenders: James Earl Ray. He pleaded guilty in Memphis in 1969 to killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but recanted the confession three days later.
Ray eventually became eligible for parole in 1994 and went before the parole board that May. Traughber recalled Ray being declined and told he couldn't come back before the seven-member board until 1999. Ray died in prison in 1998.
Traughber said Ray was denied parole mainly because of the "seriousness of the offense."
"We were convinced he did it," he said. "He pled guilty to it, and he couldn't produce anything to say that he didn't do it."