On Wednesday, World War II veteran and former Rockdale County Sheriff J. T. Wallace, age 89, was given a fitting send off as a horse-drawn hearse was escorted by the RCSO honor guard to his final resting place at Green Meadow Memorial Gardens. The coffin was draped with two American flags – one flown in his honor over the nation’s capital on December 7, 2000 and another presented by the American Legion.
During his 20-year tenure as sheriff from 1960 to 1980, John Tom Wallace was known by the community as a compassionate and innovative man of integrity. “He was a man of more finesse and less force and because of his personal touch turned many lives around,” said his grandson, Wally Norton, “Granddaddy would give troublemakers two choices – either join the service or start going to church.” Wallace never wore a uniform, rather dressed inconspicuously in street clothes and wore a small, shield-shaped badge.
Norton considers himself fortunate to have been “molded” by his grandfather. As a youth, he spent a lot of time at the jailhouses on Milstead where Wallace maintained living quarters for much of his career.
Retired RCSO Capt. Bobby Davis said, “He was a strong sheriff who had the youth at heart and never raised his voice or cursed.”
Current Sheriff Jeff Wigington was mentored by Wallace when he recruited Wigington to join the department at age 17. “He was a well-respected sheriff, and I looked up to him.”
Wallace, along with former Police Chief Roland Vaughn, was responsible for a relatively small county being equipped with resources normally reserved for larger departments. “In the late 1970s, we were ahead of our time with helicopters, motorcycles and rescue vehicles,” said Wigington, “They worked together to obtain grants and military surplus vehicles.”
Norton remembers his grandmother, Mary Lou, inadvertently encouraging Wallace’s law enforcement career. After the war, he returned to a maintenance position at Callaway Mills; and she disliked him coming home filthy and pushed him to find a cleaner line of work.
Early on in his career, Wallace garnered national attention when “Master Detective” magazine profiled the murder of Tommy and Wayne Henderson. It was a sensational case when Charles Byrd, seeking vengeance for the alleged rape of his girlfriend, leg-ironed three men outside a drive-in and shot them before dumping their bodies in a well. One man, James Flanagan, was able to escape.
Norton regards Wallace’s WWII service on the European front to top his many accomplishments. Though wounded three times, he only accepted one Purple Heart because “he didn’t want his family to hear he was wounded and worry about him.” He said Wallace spoke about his “inner-voice” and how it saved his life many times. During one march, he hopped a ride on a tank and moved to the opposite side just before a bomb hit it.
He also participated in General Patton’s Third Army’s historic Lorraine march when they got ahead of the supply lines and ran out of fuel outside of Metz, France while trying to exploit the Germans’ weakness. Wallace was instrumental in tracking down many of Rockdale’s WWII veterans to form “The Last Man Standing” club.
Wallace was preceded in death by his wife of 33 years Mary Lou Wallace; daughter, Brenda Norton; and his wife of 30 years Bernice Wallace. He is survived by grandchildren, Wally and Lil Norton, Jason Norton, Wanda and Russell Jones, Sherry Elrod, Rhonda Elrod, Patti Healy; two great-grandchildren, Danielle and Jenna Healy. Contributions may be made to Georgia Sheriff's Youth Home, c/o Georgia Sheriff's Assoc., 3000 Hwy. 42 North, PO Box 1000, Stockbridge, GA 30281, OR American Legion Post 77, 674 Legion Rd. NE, Conyers, GA 30012.