Published: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 By JOHN TURK
A lot has changed since Henry Wallace, the first African American promoted to the rank of police captain in Michigan, walked the streets of Pontiac early in his career as a sheriff’s deputy.
Wallace, 79, remembers when the city was a “metropolis,” he said.
“We had six automobile plants in the nearby area, money was everywhere — we had everything. I remember when there were five movie theaters in downtown Pontiac on Saginaw Street.”
The city has since fallen on hard times, requiring the help of three emergency managers, but Wallace holds to the belief that “we’re going to come back,” he said.
Highly revered by the community and his fellow officers, Wallace recently retired from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, but still remains loyal to the city he calls home.
Wallace’s ties to Pontiac run deep. He’s spent more than two-thirds of his life living in the city, working under four sheriffs, five county prosecutors and two county executives.
The Oakland Press/TIM THOMPSON Captain Henry Wallace of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, who recently retired.
Since his last day May 3, he has been honored by the Pontiac City Council, his fellow deputies and, soon, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners for the service to the community — but also for his trailblazing work in law enforcement.
He has been a lecturer against drugs at various community venues, a longtime secretary for the Society of African American Police, and a 41-year veteran of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. He was even instrumental in making corrections training with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office a requirement, he said.
The Americus, Ga., native moved to Tampa, Fla., then to Pontiac — all before he was 13 years old. He served in the Korean War in 1953, at a state mental institution and a state hospital in Pontiac before settling into his career, but there was one thing he was sure of, he said: “I always wanted to wear a badge.”
About 20 years down the road — in 1971 — two city activists named Marie Johnson and Ed Reeves gathered 12 black men in Wallace’s neighborhood who they thought could pass the exam to become deputies for the then-Oakland County Sheriff’s Department. Wallace was in that group, and he was one of the eight who passed.
“I always thought the term was derogatory, because it was something coined by inmates — you know, ‘one who turns a key,’” said Wallace. “Now, it has been changed to ‘deputy.’”
It wasn’t always easy being a minority in the workforce — he helped keep occasional mistreatment of black inmates at bay and shrugged off racially-driven anger early in his career — but he’s now highly respected, he said.
“I was fortunate that even the officers for the former Pontiac Police Department, and even in my own department, had such respect for me,” said Wallace. “Whenever I came around, they would always stand … you never got around to saying it to the people, but it warms my heart to see the kind of respect I get from fellow officers.
“It makes you feel good that you did something, because when you were doing these things, you weren’t doing them to be recognized — you did it because it was right.”
Wallace — one of the most highly decorated officers within the sheriff’s office — takes pride in his years put in, he said. However, he said he loves the community he’s a part of just as much. He’s visited a number of community churches and he keeps up with relationships with former and current coworkers.
When Rochester Hills resident Sharon Jenkinson, 55, gave birth to her daughter, Rachel, at Crittenton Hospital, Wallace was there soon after.
“We were on a bowling league in Pontiac around 1984,” said Jenkinson. “I met Henry through my husband, Timothy, who was a deputy at the jail with him.”
The captain had always taken a special interest in his colleagues and their families, she said. After Jenkinson had given birth to her daughter, Wallace came to the hospital, a gift for the newborn in hand.
“Today, he still calls and checks up once or twice a week to ask about the family,” Jenkinson said. “He’s just a wonderful, caring person … always had a good rapport with the guys at work.”
“This is a man who has worn a uniform for around 60 of his 79 years … he has served in the military, served civilly and has also served the community through the sheriff’s office,” Bolden said. “You don’t find many people willing to dedicate their entire lives to service.”
Wallace has been recognized by Sheriff Michael Bouchard and several local churches and dignitaries, but Bolden and a few co-workers also put together a retirement party that was held Monday night at Pontiac’s Crofoot Ballroom on South Saginaw. Before the event, Bolden — who’s known the captain more than 20 years — said he expected an extraordinary turnout.
“Almost everyone in the department, except the sheriff, has worked under Capt. Wallace,” said Bolden. Wallace retired as the highest-ranking black officer within the sheriff’s office.
“It’s going to be a lot different (without him).”