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When Wilson County sheriff’s Deputy Johnnie Coleman, a popular and widely respected school resource officer at Beddingfield High School, announced his retirement, the well wishes and congratulatory messages came rolling in.
“Everyone loves him,” said Amber Lynch, public information director for Wilson County Schools.
The Wilson County Schools Facebook post announcing Coleman’s retirement got 2,200 likes, 729 comments and 554 shares.
Commentators called Coleman “a great man” and “an awesome man” and “a wonderful resource officer and human being.”
Parents thanked Coleman for “taking care of my baby.” One student thanked Coleman for saving her from a horrible automobile wreck. Another thanked him for being on the stage to shake seniors’ hands on graduation day.
“He has always been there for so many people,” said Beddingfield Principal F.T. Franks. “One thing about Deputy Coleman that speaks out is his compassion for the students. I don’t think there is a student at Beddingfield High School who didn’t feel that at a moment’s notice they couldn’t go to him and discuss things with him. He was always trying to help students.”
Coleman retired Dec. 31 after 29 years with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office. He started working as a Wilson County detention officer and had been an SRO at Springfield Middle School. In 1999, he took on the job of being SRO at Beddingfield High School, where he has been ever since.
Franks said Coleman knew the students by name and knew their families.
“Parents would come to Beddingfield upset about whatever situation may have occurred,” Franks said. “They didn’t want to speak to me. They didn’t want to speak to another administrator. They wanted to speak to Johnnie Coleman.”
Franks said he was comfortable with the arrangement.
“Johnnie would talk to them, and then, eventually, he would transition them over to me just to make sure they had talked to someone in the school personnel,” Franks said. “Teachers would call him for almost anything. It is amazing just how crucial he was to the day-to-day activities at Beddingfield High School.”
Debra Pegram, a teacher and girls basketball coach who has worked at Beddingfield for 29 years, said Coleman is the No. 1 fan of every student at the school.
“Whether they were athletes or just students, he wanted the best for each kid,” Pegram said.
Many times, Coleman would pay for students to get where they needed to go and never wanted thanks for doing so.
“He would ask, ‘Who needs to go and how much is it?’” Pegram said. “And he never wanted me to tell them that he sponsored them. If I needed shoes for somebody, if the kid just didn’t have what they needed and we were running low on our own funds, he was the go-to person. Numerous times he has helped girls on my team with prom dresses or getting their hair fixed for the prom, just things that might have been a burden for their parents at the time, and he never wanted anybody to know. He wanted to be a supporter, but he didn’t want any of the recognition that came along with it. That’s him, just a giving spirit.”
Coleman grew up in Wilson and graduated from Hunt High School in 1982. Coleman was a standout football player and was the first Hunt High student to bring home a state wrestling championship title.
“He’s a big, strong man walking around with a gun, but he has an even bigger heart,” Pegram said. “He knows everyone, and that’s another plus for him. He knew every kid’s name. And he not only knew their name, he knew their mom, their grandmother, their dad, and he would call them out.”
According to Pegram, Coleman had such a strong personal relationship that a kid would straighten up and do OK “because he knew Mr. Coleman was not only going to get him, but he was going to let his family know he was doing something wrong.”
In a 2005 interview with The Wilson Daily Times, Coleman said the discipline he got from athletics prepared him for his job as a school resource officer.
“I tell people all the time that they need to be listening to what others have to say because you never know when someone will tell you something that will change you for the rest of your life,” Coleman said. “I love my job. I wake up in the morning and I’m ready to come to work.”
Coleman said he tried to learn students’ names and find out about them so they won’t be intimidated by him.
“That’s what was so funny about it,” Pegram said. “I have seen a number of times Mr. Coleman lecturing a kid and saying, ‘Don’t make me call your mom. I will.’ And you could see the kid just straighten up, and that’s what made him so unique. He found a way to connect with every kid at the level they needed to get the message across.
“He was hardcore when he needed to be, and he would give a kid a break when he needed it. At the end of the day, he wanted the best for those kids.”
Franks and Pegram said they both knew of instances where Coleman had helped students with job recommendations.
“Whatever he could do to help a Beddingfield Bruin out, he’s going to do it, and I can’t imagine walking the halls without him,” Pegram said. “Those are some big shoes to fill.”