Community is a wonderful thing. It lifts us up when we need encouragement, it shares in celebrating our joys and it comforts us when we suffer the pain of loss.
I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of this community for close to 14 years now. During that time, I’ve gotten to know many people who have touched my life in one way or another.
That’s what made Saturday one of the hardest days to be a journalist.
I had the solemn, yet extremely important, task of covering the accident that killed four people – including Terri Johnson.
I don’t want to use this space to dwell on any more details of that devastating event. Instead, I’d like to talk about the Terri Johnson I knew.
I didn’t know her as well as many in Wise County. I didn’t grow up around here like she did. But in the many times I did see her and speak to her through the course of reporting, I was able to see she was not only a remarkable elected official, but also a remarkable member of that Wise County community.
I suppose I met her not long after she was elected justice of the peace for Precinct 2 in 2006. Many of our interactions came in situations similar to the one Saturday. Justices of the peace have, among their many duties, the job of pronouncing people dead at accident scenes and possibly ordering autopsies or blood tests. In fact, now that I think about it, I probably first talked to her at the scene of a fatal accident on Farm Road 51 North of Decatur.
It was a small gesture that made a lasting impression.
She asked if I needed anything.
Terri understood I was there to do a job just like she was, and she offered to help me without me even having to ask. I remember she was extremely professional in that situation as she gave me all the information she could. She told me if I needed anything else, just let her know.
At other times, I’d talk to her on the phone or stop by with an open records request – usually for an arrest warrant affidavit for some criminal case. Without fail, Terri would always help me with my request right away.
She had a knack for making you feel you were the most important person, or that the requested task was immediately at the top of her priority list.
Sometimes if I had a question about a criminal case or a warrant, and I didn’t know which of the four justice of the peace courts I needed to contact, I’d call her first. If she didn’t know the answer, she’d offer to make a few calls and get back with me.
She must have had a ton of work on her plate, and yet it would usually only be 10 or 15 minutes before she was calling me back with the information I had requested.
She seemed to love helping people directly. If there was any way possible, she probably would have preferred to talk personally to everyone who called her office. But when it became obvious she couldn’t, she sounded almost apologetic in a recorded message you heard when you called:
“I just want you to know, I hate automated answering machines as well, but due to the high volume of calls to this office, I feel it is a necessary evil …” she said before naming off the different extensions to choose from.
Saturday’s wreck left me stunned, drawn to my computer, hoping to find comfort by getting some words out of my head. I didn’t know how or where to start in trying to adequately describe who Terri was. The first sentence I typed on Sunday was, “As an elected official, she was a servant rather than a politician.”
I only knew Terri from her work as an elected official – but I realized during Monday night’s candlelight vigil at First Baptist Church in Decatur that the word “servant” applied to other areas of her life as well.
The speakers and others who filled out cards with their thoughts, time after time described her as a servant or a servant leader. In fact, if it had been any other Monday night, Terri would have been cooking and serving up food for the many Fellowship of Christian Athletes members who were there.
As I headed into work Monday, thinking about the enormous task in front of me of telling both the story of the accident and a little bit about who Terri was, I drove through a local eatery for some breakfast. I tried to hand the server the money, but she just gave me my food and informed me that the gentleman in line in front of me had paid for my meal.
I couldn’t help but smile, and think about how much Terri would have approved of the kind gesture. It’s something she would have done, if she’d been there.
If we are looking for a way to honor her memory, perhaps those small, random acts of service to others are what Terri would recommend.
Just like her, they leave a lasting impression.
Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.