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NewsWednesday, May 9, 2012
1995 Criminal Justice graduate Wanda Johnson was named one of the College's Faces of the Decades as part of Tri-County's 50th anniversary celebration. An outstanding alumnus from each decade (1960s - 2000s) was recognized by President Ronnie L. Booth at the May 7 spring commencement.
Wanda Johnson Named One of Tri-County’s Faces of the Decades
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(By Lisa Garrett)
ANDERSON --- Wanda Johnson learned a great deal about being a good law enforcement/probation agent -- and listener -- from former Tri-County Criminal Justice Department Head Lew Holton and his lectures.
"He taught us to think outside the box as we addressed issues that had to stay inside the box. The law is the law," said the 1995 Tri-County Technical College Criminal Justice graduate, who has made a career in the Anderson County criminal justice system. Johnson was named one of the College's Faces of the Decades as part of Tri-County's 50th anniversary celebration. An outstanding alumnus from each decade (1960s - 2000s) was recognized by President Ronnie L. Booth at the May 7 spring commencement.
"Lew provoked us to think and to discuss ideas. Many times class would end and we would all go outside Oconee Hall where the conversation and the learning continued. Lew always stressed it's important to treat people with respect."
By day Johnson works as a probation agent and victim services coordinator South Carolina's Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services (SCDPPS). "I entered the criminal justice field because I wanted a career where I can make a difference right away," she said.
Several months before graduating from Tri-County's Criminal Justice department, she landed her first job as a public servant in Anderson County Summary Court working for then-Chief Magistrate Carl Anderson.
"I am interested in people's right to due process. I had the opportunity daily to help individuals find their way through the criminal justice system," she said. After five and one half years in the Summary Court office, she accepted a job at the Anderson County Detention Center where she was an administrative coordinator. In 2001 she accepted an offer to join SCDPPS. Johnson completed the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy and was sworn in as a field probation agent in 2002. "It can be a challenging profession at times but I truly enjoy serving the public," she said. She has been in her current position since 2005.
You can catch her on the stage of local night spots or at seasonal events like the Anderson Block Parties, Artisphere, Main Street Fridays and Fall for Greenville, belting out rhythm and blues standards and developing an instant rapport with her legion of fans. "Music is my glorified hobby; it's my joy," she said.
Growing up in Belton, singing with her parents, Hattie and the late Jake Johnson, her eight sisters and grandmother, was second nature. "Our voices were our instruments," recalled Johnson, who never pursued singing professionally until 1999.
"God has given me a gift," she said. "I have no formal training but singing is like breathing to me."
Johnson's perspective wasn't always so clear. While a student at Tri-County, her 10-year marriage began to dissolve, along with her self-esteem.
"I was in a state of emotional upheaval. I was two semesters away from graduation, and I was seriously considering dropping out. School really mattered to me but I couldn't handle it. It was a big deal because I was the first in my family to go to college but because I was separated, the money wasn't there anymore."
At her lowest point, she finally broke down and told Holton about her marital situation and her thoughts of abandoning college. "I told him I may have to drop out because I wouldn't be able to pay for the next semester's tuition out of my pocket. Lew zeroed in on the bigger picture and immediately said, 'You can't quit. We're going to get through this.' He talked to me about applying for a Pell grant and told me about scholarship opportunities. He encouraged me and helped me to see that I could make it. He was my eyes when I couldn't see things clearly. When I was saying I can't make it, he saw my capabilities and for that I'll be forever grateful."
College scholarships, such as the James R. Longo and the J. B. Ouzts Memorial Scholarships through the College's Foundation, were 'gold,' in her words. "Without them, there would have been no college," she said.
She said Holton and classmates rallied to help her through a difficult period in her life. "Today, I tell people that if they are going through a bad time, you'll be amazed what people will do for you. People at Tri-County wanted me to succeed. The fact that I graduated at all is my biggest honor - and I attribute it to Lew and my classmates who were in my corner."
In fact, Holton knew she could succeed not only academically, but on stage as well. After hearing her sing, he and several others invited her to a local blues club which was hosting Open Mike Night. Holton talked with the band members, and later that evening Johnson was invited to sing on stage. They offered her a job before the evening was over.
Johnson's current boss, Agent in Charge Gerald Black, is another who has stood by her through the years and was her supervisor when she did a student internship with the office in 1993. "Wanda is an excellent agent and she deals with people exceptionally well. The victims love her because she has a good ear and is a good sounding board. She's there for them and walks them through the process. Back in 1994, I knew it was just a matter of time before she came back to work for us. She loves the job. This is where she belongs."
After earning a B.S. in business administration from Southern Wesleyan University in 1998, Johnson found herself with more time to devote to performing. In 1999, she began musical career with her Charleston-based band, Shrimp City Slim (www.shrimpcityslim.com) and has traveled abroad for tours in Poland, France, China and Italy. She also has served as the opening act for blues legend B.B. King.
Johnson writes much of her own music. For most festival and road dates, she is accompanied by Charleston-based pianist/composer Shrimp City Slim (Gary Erwin) and his band. For local appearances in the Upstate, she is joined by The Upstate Rhythm Section which includes her husband, Conger Purcell, on guitar.
She also has released three CDs, "Call Me Miss Wanda," "Natural Resource," and "Hold What You Got."