Randy Sturgill is a craftsman at getting people together to back a common cause, be it rallying in support of a presidential candidate or fighting against offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic.
Sturgill retired Friday as Oceana’s Southeast region senior campaign manager, ending a nearly 10-year chapter of his professional career.
But this is Sturgill we’re talking about, and for those who know him personally, professionally or have an inkling about the man, you can guess “retirement” for him does not include pumping the brakes on doing what he does best — getting people to back a common cause.
Goodbye Oceana. Hello Ukraine.
Not exactly accurate: Sturgill actually stepped up to help Ukrainians shortly after their country was invaded by Russia in late February 2022.
Like so many of his fellow Americans, Sturgill was captivated by news coverage of the war. Heartbreaking images of Ukraine’s husbands and sons loading their families onto buses and trains bound to Poland for safety struck him to the core.
“For me as an organizer it was like, what can I organize? What can I do to help these people?” he told Coastal Review this week.
The answer to that question came to fruition within a short time after the start of the war, one that Sturgill got to see firsthand when he arrived in Ukraine last April to ensure the supplies he’d secured for that country’s fighters got to their intended recipients.
Growing up Mayberry
Sturgill’s trip to a warzone – yes, his wife, Vicki gave him the green light to go – turned out to be a series of adventures.
He caught rides from Poland to cross the border into Ukraine by men who spoke little to no English, set up a shop for Ukrainian nationals to pick up the camouflage uniforms and combat boots he and his wife fronted the $24,000 to buy and ship over, and talked with survivors in Bucha, the city where Russian troops carried out a “cleansing” operation March 4 that resulted in the torture and deaths of more than 400 civilians.
In a telephone interview, Sturgill peppered his stories of his time in Ukraine in vivid detail – how he and the man who picked him up in Poland to begin the journey to the border used Google Translate to communicate one particularly chilly night in an old hotel room where he could see his breath each time he exhaled, and the awestruck faces of Ukrainians as he showed them a photo on his cellular phone of him standing in the yard of his Wilmington home flying both an American and Ukrainian flag.
Interesting stories from a man who has many to tell from a life that was unique even in childhood.
At around the age of 5, Sturgill’s father became chief deputy of the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office in Lillington, a small town nestled along the banks of the Cape Fear River.
The job entailed the Sturgill family moving into the county jail’s living quarters, a two-story brick home attached to the jailhouse, which was connected to the courthouse.
Sturgill grew up in that house living what he calls a “Mayberry-ish” life. Mom took a position as the jail dietician. She was called the “matron of the jail,” looking after the small number of female inmates and ensuring all who were incarcerated – anywhere from five to 25 at a time – ate homecooked meals prepared at the hands of a local woman.
On rainy days, Sturgill and a handful of his buddies would gravitate up to an empty Superior Court room, stretch a portable ping-pong net across one of the long tables reserved for attorneys “and have really good ping-pong matches.”
He would do his share of the work, taking plates of food to the inmates.
He remembers sitting on the cold jail floor and playing cards with men who told him to make good choices so that he wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of the bars that separated them.
Any of this sound eerily familiar? Google “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Long arm of the law to environmental advocate
During the summer after Sturgill graduated from high school, an advertisement for police cadets in Washington, D.C., caught his eye.
The small amount of money his parents had squirreled away each month over the years might have been enough to cover one semester of college. He told them to take that money and use it for something else. He was going to be a police officer.
His first law enforcement assignment was with the communication division on the sixth floor of the police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. in the nation’s capital.
But “big city” life wasn’t for Sturgill. He missed home.
He moved back to North Carolina where he took a job as a North Carolina Highway Patrol telecommunicator. He eventually moved back to Harnett County, where he would become one of the first two narcotic agents in the county.
“I ended up with over 10 years in drug enforcement alone,” Sturgill said.
He finished up his law enforcement career as an inspector with the state Division of Motor Vehicles, investigating things like auto theft.
During those years he had two daughters with his first wife. They divorced in the mid-1990s.
Then, he reconnected with his high school sweetheart. They married and raised a blended family – two girls and two boys – in Fayetteville. As soon as the two youngest graduated high school, the couple made their move to the coast.
It was there on Topsail Island where Sturgill began working for then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s campaign.
Sturgill would run Obama’s campaign office in Brunswick, New Hanover and a portion of Columbus counties during the president’s run for reelection.
Political campaigns are all about the buildup up to election day. When the polls close, the work in the office ends.
“You’re just sitting at your desk,” Sturgill said. “You’re looking around. All of this stuff that was so important a few hours ago is now recyclable.”
As Obama settled in for another four years, Sturgill was looking at job postings for campaign organizers. This organization called Oceana that he’d never heard of was on the hunt for an organizer for the southeastern U.S.
Campaign for the environment?
“That would be really cool,” Sturgill thought.
He was 60, the oldest field operative for the Obama campaign in the state.
“I said, ‘These people aren’t going to hire an old guy like me,’” Sturgill said. “I didn’t have a background in environmental issues. I said, ‘what the heck’ and I did (apply)”
He sold his interviewees on this: Give him a shot at building an army of supporters in the region.
Sturgill’s crowning achievement with Oceana is one he calls a “campaign of resolutions,” which kicked off when a New Hanover County beach town board passed a resolution opposing offshore oil exploration and drilling off the North Carolina coast.
He followed the board’s decision with a flurry of emails to beach towns up and down the Carolinas and Georgia.
“If they had a beach or saltwater connected to them I sent this letter asking them to considering doing a resolution,” Sturgill said. “It was all about grassroots. Let me have a few meetings with local people, teach them what they need to do when they got to a town board meeting, which is just basically letting the board members know that this is not a fit for North Carolina. Grassroots won the battle. They went to town halls. They went to county commissioners. They went to their senators, their congressmen.”
It was a David-and-Goliath battle. The little man versus big oil, a fight Sturgill predicts will “rear up again.”
A new campaign
“That was probably the big one for me,” he said.
He turns 70 later this month and, though retired, he’ll still be busy securing military gear and goods and shipping them to Ukraine.
Like the dutiful organizer, Sturgill embarked on this latest campaign with a phone call. This one to a Fayetteville-based military surplus store he picked at random from an Internet search.
That call resulted in him linking up with a man who had the number of used camouflage uniforms – 500 sets of pants and shirts – Sturgill was seeking. He found a deal on brand new military surplus boots for $32 a pair. Gently used were $15.
He paid for the uniforms and boots out-of-pocket and found a startup shipping company in Wilmington that was accepting donations to ship to Ukraine. Sturgill volunteered to help package up donations and, true to his nature, struck up a conversation with the owner.
The two made a deal that the company would ship the uniforms, boots and kneepads free of charge.
In the meantime, Sturgill documented on social media his efforts to get supplies to Ukraine. The donations started coming in.
When the free shipping deal ended, Sturgill made another deal to send supplies via air.
He currently has about $1,000 worth of special bandages for gunshot wounds and a pile of tourniquet kits he’s collecting donations for to fly to Ukraine.
“As long as there is a need I’ll do this, but hopefully the need will end sooner than later,” Sturgill said. “I’m retiring Friday. Everything I will be doing will be like any other John Q. Citizen volunteering to try to do good. I found something I know that I can do that as long as I can do it I’ll do my best to do what I can and then come home and do stuff I want to do like any other 70-year-old guy.”
To help support Sturgill’s efforts, contact him at 910–713-8251 or email@example.com.