Imagine 30 years ago, two law-bending cousins, riding around the county in their customized orange-ish late-'60s Dodge Charger, trying to best a corrupt county commissioner. If such actually existed in Rockdale County in the 1980s, then-Sheriff J.T. Wallace would have known them by name, and likely tried to lead the cousins and the commissioner back to the straight and narrow.
But every now and then, Mr. Wallace did catch a glimpse of Bo and Luke Duke and Boss Jefferson Davis Hogg. He made friends with the actors who played those characters, as The Dukes of Hazzard filmed several episodes in the '80s in the area and used the Rockdale County jail, which was under Sheriff Wallace’s purview.
“We’ve got this huge book of pictures that he collected from the time they spent together,” said Danielle Healy, a great-granddaughter who lives in Conyers. “I thought that was really neat, and I could tell my friends, ‘Yeah, my grandpa knew the Dukes of Hazzard.’”
Born John Tom Wallace Jr., the former sheriff of Rockdale County, died Saturday in his Conyers residence from complications of congested heart failure. He was 89. A funeral service has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Green Meadow Chapel at Scot Ward Funeral Service, which is also in charge of arrangements. Burial will immediately follow the service at Green Meadow Memorial Gardens.
Mr. Wallace, a World War II veteran, was born in Shawmut, Ala., and raised in LaGrange. After high school, Mr. Wallace moved to Conyers where he worked for Callaway Mills until he was drafted into the military. After his service was complete, he returned to Conyers and resumed working at the mill, where he worked until the mid-'50s, said Patti Healy, a granddaughter who lives in Conyers. He left the mill and became a deputy for the Rockdale Sheriff’s Department for four years. And when a group of local businessmen approached him about running against the incumbent sheriff of 20 years, he took on the challenge.
“He did tell them he had to talk to his wife, Mary Lou, first,” Mrs. Healy said. “And I’m told she said she’d be glad for him to have a job where he didn’t come home dirty from the mill every day.”
Mr. Wallace and his wife were married for 33 years when she died in 1973. The couple had one daughter, Brenda Norton, who died of a massive heart attack when she was in her 50s. He did remarry and was wed to his second wife, Bernice Wallace, for 30 years when she died in 2003.
Mr. Wallace won his initial election and served as sheriff from 1960 until he retired in 1980.
“He said it was a good day,” his granddaughter said, of her grandfather’s first election. “He’d been fired from his deputy job because he decided to run against the sheriff, and all he had was $5 in his pocket, so now he could feed his family.”
Though times were different, and the responsibilities of the sheriff have changed over the years, Mr. Wallace ran a first-class department, said current Rockdale Sheriff Jeff Wigington. The former sheriff was easy to talk to and personable, which made him perfect for the job, he said. Mr. Wigington said he hopes he can exhibit some of the characteristics that made Mr. Wallace a good sheriff.
“He was the first sheriff I worked for,” Mr. Wigington said. “He was a no-nonsense sheriff, but he was very well-respected.”
Mr. Wallace is also survived by five additional grandchildren and one additional great-granddaughter.
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