J.T. Wallace served Rockdale County as sheriff for 20 years. Along the way he mentored other law enforcement officers and oversaw a Sheriff's Office that grew from two employees to 56. Funeral services for Wallace will be held Wednesday. -- Special Photo
CONYERS -- J.T. Wallace, once described as "a sheriff's sheriff," died Saturday at the age of 89.
Wallace served Rockdale County as sheriff for 20 years and oversaw many significant changes in law enforcement over the course of those two decades.
Funeral services for Wallace will be held Wednesday, June 6, at 2 p.m. at Scot Ward's Green Meadow Chapel with Donna Allen, Darrell Allen, Rev. Howard Greer and Billy Rhoden officiating; interment will follow at Green Meadow Memorial Gardens. The family will receive friends Tuesday from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. and Wednesday from noon to 2 p.m. prior to the service.
Two American flags will be draped over the coffin -- one presented by the American Legion, of which Wallace was a member, and one that was flown over the nation's capitol in his honor on Dec. 7, 2000.
Sheriff Jeff Wigington recalled Wallace as a man who mentored him, beginning when Wigington was a teenager. Wigington said that he was interested in law enforcement and started riding along with deputies when he was about 16 years old. He became a frequent companion to deputies on patrol until one day when he and Deputy David Farmer pulled up at the Sheriff's Office.
"(Wallace) came around to the car window and said, 'Boy, do you want to go to work for me?'" Wigington said. When Wigington replied that he did, Wallace said, "'I got to talk to your daddy, and if he don't mind I'm going to put you to work,'" Wigington said.
Wigington's father agreed, and Wigington went to work for the Sheriff's office at the age of 17 as a radio operator and jailer.
"I thought he was a very good sheriff when I worked for him, and I respected him highly," Wigington said.
Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas, who previously served as Conyers police chief, had a similar experience when Wallace recruited him.
"I was at my grandfather's funeral in 1977 and he approached me at the funeral," Lucas said. "My grandfather was a deputy sheriff, the first paid deputy sheriff in Rockdale County.
"(Wallace) asked me at the funeral, 'Why don't you come to my office tomorrow?' I thought what does the sheriff want with me?"
What Wallace wanted was for Lucas to sign on as a deputy.
"He said, 'I've got two openings and I'll give you until July 1; the job's yours until July 1."
Lucas went to work for the Sheriff's Office and was later Wallace's choice to succeed him when he retired in 1980.
Lucas didn't run for the office that year. "I was really too young," he said. "I was only 26 years old with only three or four years of law enforcement at the time."
Lucas later did run for the office but was unable to unseat incumbent Sheriff Vic Davis.
Not only did Wallace mentor law enforcement officers, Lucas said he also kept an eye out for the youngsters in the community.
"I knew him as a young kid," Lucas said. "He was so good to the people here. He helped those of us who got into a little trouble when we were young and gave us that father-son talk."
Wallace was a man who commanded respect, but he also believed in helping others.
"He was a very stern sheriff," Wigington said, "and if he said it you didn't question it. But I know he helped a lot of people out."
Wallace also stood behind his employees, Lucas said, but he expected them to be worthy of that loyalty.
"He was such a wonderful guy and just a big, huge, larger-than-life man," Lucas said. "He was good for all those who worked for him. Two things, you didn't lie to him and you didn't steal from him."
Wigington said that Wallace oversaw a period of drastic growth for the Sheriff's Office.
"When he took over in 1961 he had one deputy, and then when he retired in 1980 he had 56 employees," Wigington said. "So he saw it grow from one or two employees to 56 in the 20 years he was in office."
Wallace also witnessed great changes in the way sheriffs' offices were operated, Wigington said. When Wallace took office, the fee system was in place under which sheriffs were paid based on fees collected for functions they performed. Wallace and his family lived at the jail, which was on Milstead Avenue next to the courthouse at the time. When a new jail was built, the Wallace family lived there, too, but by the time Wigington went to work at the Sheriff's Office in the mid-70s, the family had moved to other quarters, he said.
In a 2011 interview for the Citizen's A Veteran's Story series, Wallace talked about his strong faith in God and how it helped him survive the perils of World War II. Wallace fought through some of the toughest combat conditions in Europe in France and Germany and was wounded three times. In that interview Wallace talked about a small New Testament Bible he carried in his combat jacket pocket at all times.