UNION COUNTY - Union County is mourning the loss of a longtime fixture in New Jersey law enforcement and politics.

Sheriff Ralph Froehlich passed away late Sunday night after a brief but devastating battle with cancer.

Froehlich, 83, had held the office of sheriff since he was elected in 1977.

After 36 years in office, Froehlich was the longest-serving sheriff in New Jersey history. He had many political allies, but his friends were not all in high places.

Undersheriff Vincent Detrolio worked for Froehlich since 1978, and says hearts are heavy at the Union County Administration Building. "You walk in and you feel the sense of loss," he says.

"Often people he arrested became his friends later," says Undersheriff Joe Cryan. Many would ask for help to get their lives on track, he says, "and of course, the sheriff being the sheriff and the man he was, assistance was always provided."

Froehlich enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1951 and served as an infantryman, member of an amphibious tractor crew and drill instructor. He was also a member of the Elizabeth Police Department for almost 20 years, attaining the rank of lieutenant.

"Sheriff Froehlich will be deeply missed by all who knew him," said Union County Chairman Christopher Hudak on behalf of the Freeholder Board. "He truly embodied the very best in public service. He was a role model to all of us for his highest standards of professionalism, his constant search for new ways to innovate and improve, and above all for his compassion."

A special election will be held in November to choose Froehlich's successor.