Sheriff makes a hobby out of unique collection

By BUSTER WOLFE,

Lamar County Sheriff Danny Rigel grew up like the many boys around him of that era, collecting baseball cards and attaching them with clothespins to the spokes of his bicycle.

“I could make it sound like a motorcycle,” he said in his office earlier this week. “My mom threw away a bunch of them when I moved out of the house. I think I had a lot of good ones at one time. Of course, you didn’t really respect at what they were at the time and or think that one day they might be valuable.”

Rigel’s collections these days have taken a different angle with his display of challenge coins that he keeps at the office and at home. A challenge coin is a small coin or medallion with an organization’s insignia or emblem that is carried by the organization’s members. Traditionally, they are given to prove membership when challenged and to enhance morale.

Although the tradition of awarding coins for valor or nobility goes back to the 1600s, Rigel said Hurricane Katrina in 2009 spurred his interest in challenge coins.

“The first time I had seen a law enforcement challenge coin was when the people came from out of state from Virginia and North Carolina as the officers came to help us after Katrina and stayed for a couple of weeks,” he said. “The first time I had seen the challenge coin, they brought them. That’s what prompted us to start getting them. I got three from three different agencies that came after Katrina. The first thing I did was to mail them to the respective sheriffs and police chiefs and say, ‘Thank you.’ It really puts the connection you have with people on a different level.”

Other local law enforcement agencies, such as Hattiesburg and Petal police departments, also have challenge coins that Rigel has collected, along with state governmental entities.

“Basically, it’s a heavy-duty business card,” Rigel said. “You get a real connection to the people who give them to you. Some of the coins are really elaborate. You don’t just give them away, so if you get one from somebody, it means something. I just think they’re neat.”

The Lamar County Sheriff’s Department challenge coin comes from a Utah company that charges $5.60 for each one, Rigel said.

“Officers are wanting to order some more,” he said. “They take them with them when they go off to schools. It’s a lot more impressive than business card, which you might throw it away.”

Challenge coins became popular during World War I when soldiers used them to identify themselves when they met strangers in foreign countries. The tradition continued through the military in some form until the present day.

One widely known challenge coin in the United States Air Force was the "Bull Dog" challenge coin exclusive to B-52 enlisted tail gunners. Because the B-52 gunner position was phased out in 1991, this famous challenge coin has become more rare.

The United States Congress produces challenge coins for members of Congress to give to constituents. Today, challenge coins are given to members upon joining an organization, as an award to improve morale and sold to commemorate special occasions or as fundraisers. 

President Bill Clinton had several racks of challenge coins that had been given to him by U.S. service members on the credenza behind his Oval Office desk. They also appear in the background of his official portrait, now hanging in the White House.

As far as the “challenge” goes, the first challenges were to prove membership in an organization when challenged by another person. Today, the challenge coin is sometimes used to determine who will buy drinks at a bar. Everyone in the group must buy a drink for the holder of the highest-ranking coin. 

The practice of giving challenge coins has also been extended to NASCAR, academic awards and movie and television projects.

Rigel said some of his challenge coins have a history.

“Each coin has a story,” he said. “I can tell you where I got most of them. I’d love to get an old one that you don’t see anymore. Having some of the really old ones would be neat. I’m sort of a packrat when it comes to collecting things.”

In earlier times, Rigel also brought home coins and collectibles.

“It all happened with coins and tokens that people want,” he said. “That’s a trade token from Parchman Penitentiary. When you use to work, they used to give them to you in 5, 10, 15, up to 50 cents. That’s what you bought stuff from the commissary with. They are made out of brass from about the 1940s and are highly collectible too. It’s not a challenge coin, but it’s a token.”

Rigel’s grandfather had an impromptu collection of poll tax coins at his business.

“My grandfather used to own a plumbing supply shop down in Biloxi and he had this wire coat hanger-thing bolted to the counter,” he said. “He had all these tax tokens on it because each token had a hole through them. It used to fascinate me as a kid because some of them were brass and some were white plastic.”

Rigel even has some tokens from local business in Lamar County.

“I’ve got some at the house that are sawmill tokens at the J.J. Newman Lumber Company and the Tatum Lumber Company,” he said. “They would have houses for the workers and they paid you with their own currency. They also had their own store because it was too far away to go to the store in town, so you bought everything in the store. You would trade your tokens in for what you wanted and the company would control the prices.”

His “most valuable” challenge coin? Rigel has a challenge coin from U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, pretty much guaranteeing he won’t be buying drinks anytime soon.

“I got it from a friend of a friend,” Rigel said. “It wasn’t given to me by Mabus. People will trade the coins and I was fortunate enough to get one.