Inspired life: Johnson loved cousin and Christie


Life imitated art, in a way, when Charlottesville city Sheriff Cornelia Johnson first entered law enforcement. After working as a school crossing guard in town, she was influenced to join the police by two other ladies with badges.

One was her cousin, Prentiss Martin-Strickland, the first black policewoman in Washington, D.C. The other was Christie Love, the eponymous African-American crime-buster of the 1974-75 TV series Get Christie Love, a heroine who always informed the nogoodniks she busted, "You're under arrest, sugar."

"I got started from my cousin," says Johnson, "and Christie Love was really what sparked the idea that I could become a police officer" (in one of those rare instances of the media being credited with decreasing crime).

Love was played by Teresa Graves, who died last year at age 53. "I came into my office and sat back," says Johnson, "and my heart kind of dropped a lot, thinking, 'Gee whiz, this is a person who never knew that she had someone out there whose whole life she actually turned around."

Johnson is the second black female Sheriff in Virginia's history. Michelle Mitchell of Richmond was the first.

Johnson has her own take on her current position. "People always say to me, 'I don't think you realize what you've done by becoming the first black female Sheriff here in Charlottesville.'" But, to me, that's not an extraordinary thing, that's just an ordinary thing, in this day and age, for anyone whether you're black, green, gray, white, or whatever. I've probably accomplished a lot more than I realize, but I don't look at it that way."

A career in law enforcement has led Johnson to a job that has a lot more to do with juggling paperwork than with strapping on two six-guns and taming the town. The cases come, and the cases go.

Among other duties, Johnson manages local city courts, whether that means making certain that the proper number of officers are on hand or arranging for extra space should the media or spectators be present. "The cases go fairly smoothly," she says. "We haven't had any problems, so I don't really think that much about it."

Johnson was born near Covesville and graduated from Jackson P. Burley High School. After working as a policewoman and managing the Omni Hotel's gift shop, she was elected city Sheriff in 1998. She will be up for office again in '05.

She longs for "more cohesiveness" among the City and County officers– and in the public. "I would like to see more people getting along, just helping each other, which we have a lot of here in Charlottesville, but even more so. I think there's a lot more that can be done."

Age: Recently turned 60.

What brought you here? When I first started law enforcement, I came to be a school crossing guard.

What's worst about living here? Other than people working a little closer together, sincerely, I would say that we're in the best place ever.

Favorite hangout? Probably at my husband's shop, Cavalier Pipe and Tobacco.

Most overrated virtue? I would say that perhaps people here will give to anyone at the drop of a halfway sad story. And I think a lot of times it's used a little more than it should be.

What would people be surprised to know about you? Two things: how much I really do in the community... and how particular I am about certain issues... I'm a stickler for cleanliness and those type things.

If you could change one thing about yourself? How much I give, perhaps.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Being here at the Sheriff's office, I guess.

What do people find most annoying about you? How strict I am in certain instances... I think that annoys people sometimes, and some things that I say. I'm misunderstood a lot of the time.

Whom do you admire?: Nancy Caperton. She's a real estate agent with Roy Wheeler, who perhaps has been like a second mother to me, steered me in the right direction.

Favorite book? Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham

What subject causes you to rant? [horrified-sounding] Math

What thrills you about living in the 21st century? All the different opportunities out there for me and other people, and the amount of invitations I get in a week– or a day, sometimes.

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? When something should happen to me, and I happen to pass on to the other side, what would happen to my family.

What do you drive? The Sheriff's car

What's in your car CD player right now? Nothing. I don't have anything in there but a radio for law enforcement and a radio in the car. No CD.

What's your next trip? I'm not sure. I often think about it, now, at my age: Where do I go from here?

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I've always been a good person, [laughs] and that bothers people. Overextending myself.

What do you regret? That I haven't maybe made it any further in life than I have.

Favorite comfort food? Sweet potato pie

What's always in your refrigerator? Cheese, because my husband loves cheese. And ice cream.

Must-see TV? CNN

Favorite cartoon? None

Describe a perfect day. When everything is going good at home, my husband's health is good, all the courts are going along smoothly, I have a dinner meeting in the afternoon after work. I come home, talk to my husband about it, then we have a nice evening.

Walter Mitty fantasy? None

Who would play you in a movie? Probably one of the soap opera [stars]

What's your most embarrassing moment? When I was made to look like a bad person during a little ordeal with my brother. It was all misconstrued, but I took that along in stride.

Best advice you ever got? From my mother: Always respect other people, particularly your elders; don't always put yourself first.

Favorite bumper sticker? My senior moment just kicked in, so I can't think of it right now.


Cornelia Johnson

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

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