More than three decades ago, I graduated from the University of Alabama with degrees in social work and counseling. I came back home to Georgia and proceeded to job hunt.
I made several treks to Atlanta to take state merit exams for positions like caseworker, counselor, behavioral specialist and the like. On a whim I also took the parole officer test. Wouldn't you know it, that's the one I aced.
I was supremely unqualified for the position: I'd never taken any criminal justice classes. I don't think I'd ever even met anyone who had been in prison. I can't believe I even got an interview, much less a job.
But this was a time when there was a big movement toward community-based corrections. Dozens of parole officers were being added to the ranks. I was offered a position in Columbus. I took the job without ever seeing the city. Good Lord, what was I thinking?
In 1977, Columbus was a city in decline. The downtown area was struggling. There were scores of shuttered businesses and, after dark, drug dealers and prostitutes took over the streets. If you were to drive through at midnight, you'd see a scene resembling a "Mad Max" movie.
It's not just that there was a lot of crime. It was gruesome crime, the sort that gets written up in tabloids.
Shortly after I moved to Columbus, the Wynnton Road Stocking Strangler began his rampage. In less than eight months, seven elderly women were sexually assaulted and strangled in their homes. I had rented a house two blocks off of Wynnton Road. It was an area under siege. Gun sales skyrocketed.
After 18 months, I was transferred to Gainesville. I left Columbus and never looked back. If I gave it a thought at all, it was one of relief that I no longer lived there.
When I was told that this year's Georgia Thespian Conference was going to be held in Columbus, my first reaction was, "What? Why?" Three thousand theatre kids all gathered in the armpit of the state. Great.
I had volunteered to help chaperone a busload of drama students from North Hall High School. Director Jan Ewing made it clear that she was counting on me so there was no backing out. I packed my pepper spray and boarded the bus. I wasn't looking forward to the trip. I figured it was something that would simply have to be endured.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. The Columbus of today bears no resemblance to the Columbus of 1977.
Now, it's a gem. There's the Riverwalk Convention and Trade Center in a restored Civil War iron foundry. There's the Springer Opera House, the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts and beautiful wide downtown boulevards sprinkled with sculpture and fountains.
Columbus State University is a presence downtown (actually, they refer to it as "uptown") with an impressive campus at RiverPark. Around it has sprung up coffee houses and boutiques, art galleries and rental lofts. If I were looking at colleges, I'd look long and hard at CSU.
I'm happy to report that the North Hall kids represented you handsomely with two amazing performances of "The Miracle Worker." Helen Keller was portrayed by Catherine Foote. During the standing ovation following the first performance, I heard the man in front of me say, "I think she's really blind."
I couldn't contain myself. I tapped him on the shoulder and proudly announced, "No, she's not blind. She's just that good."
Everywhere I went, I met Columbus residents who where proud of their city and what has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time. The catalyst occurred, they say, when their city was given the softball venue in the 1996 Olympics. Civic improvements that had been dragging along for years were suddenly put into overdrive. The results were astounding. Sound familiar?
I didn't have a car so I only saw a small portion of the Fountain City. I don't know what the rest of the town is like but I fully intend to go back and see at the first available opportunity. Road trip, anyone?
Originally published in the Gainesville Times March 6, 2009