By Andrea Wright –
Bonnie L. Wardlaw recently celebrated his 80th birthday with family and friends.
The son of Jasper and Mamie Wardlaw, Bonnie is a 1955 graduate of Stephens-Lee High School and attended A&T State University.
Bonnie and his 15 brothers and sisters grew up on a farm in Chunns Cove, and, he says, none of the 16 children were ever in trouble.
“Our daddy taught us all right from wrong. I called him “Sir,” not because I was afraid of him, but out of respect,” he explained. “You didn’t say ‘yeah’ or ‘no.’”
They grew their own vegetables and slaughtered their own meat, which included hogs and beef cattle. But, he notes, “We ate squirrels, coons, bear, and rabbit. Best meat in the world.”
Bonnie and his twin brother Johnny were numbers 14 and 15 of the children; there were ten boys and six girls, and three are still living. There were fruit trees and vegetables as far you could see. They churned buttermilk and sweet milk to make their own butter out of it. He describes the routine and hard work of life on the farm in the 1930s and ’40s.
“We would get up early in the morning and walk about a block downhill to a spring to get water. We had a wood stove, so you know that meant chopping wood. We would walk through the garden and kick the watermelons so we wouldn’t have to pick them. Papa went to the store on Friday or Saturday. Even though we had plenty of meat, Papa would only cook meat once a week. Through the week we were vegetarians.”
Bonnie’s first job was as a caddy at local golf courses; he then worked as a head waiter for the Bailey’s Cafeteria franchise. He traveled throughout NC and Virginia to open new cafeterias, and also trained staff at the American Enka plant, west of Asheville. But a pivotal, life-changing moment came when he was employed by the City of Asheville as a police officer.
Bonnie recalls, “Chief Hall of the APD asked if I’d like to become a police officer. At that time Asheville Police Department was segregated, but the criteria to become an officer was the same for all officers. You were required to be a high school graduate, take the state test, and have a clean (criminal) record. However, there were no openings at that time for black officers, so Chief Hall suggested that I work as a corrections officer for Craggy State Prison.”
After 2-1/2 years as a corrections officer, Wardlaw contacted the chief to see if there were any positions for black officers. And, after passing the state-mandated test in 1965, he became one of the first African American police officers to be employed by the Asheville Police Department. The only drawback was, the APD was still segregated. Even if twenty positions were open, Wardlaw would have to wait for a “black-officer” position.
Worse, “Black officers weren’t really classified as police officers, except in our own neighborhoods,” he said. “But that changed later and black officers had the authority to arrest individuals beyond the black race.”
Bonnie worked in patrol, traffic, and training new black officers. He drove car #14, a two- man car. And he worked with many partner over the years, primarily a fellow black officer named Harold Fields. He also worked with Willie Allen, Alfred Beard, George Gregg, Bruce Pagan, Walt Robinson, Joe Singleton, William Wardlaw, Harry Washington, Leeman Williams, and Herbert “Watt Daddy” Watts. There were more black officers then than now—at one time about 20 on the force. He and his partner patrolled all over Asheville.
He specifies that a good officer has to be able to analyze a situation and communicate well. That way he doesn’t have to rely on a gun or force to get our job done. “You had to have good judgment, you had to be a man and stand your ground. I think now police officers rely more on their guns and sticks. Respect is warranted on both sides, but if a suspect is cursing you, that don’t mean you rough them up. You can’t be afraid, being afraid makes other things happen. A good cop is pleasant; they smile and rely on communication first and foremost. You have to know when to go forward and when to back up.”
Wardlaw explained the mental discipline it takes to be a good police officer by describing a traffic stop he made. The driver and his family were white.
“I pulled them over, and the man got out of the vehicle and said, ‘Hello, N-word.’ I said ‘Fine, how are you doing?’ He said, ‘What have I done wrong?’ I said, ‘You were driving 75 miles per hour in 50-mile zone.’”
He continues, “I wrote the ticket—and I addressed him as ‘sir.’ I then said to him, ‘What I want to know is—how did you know my name was N-word? I didn’t think anybody knew that.’ He looked at me with the most perplexed look on his face—and I just smiled the whole time,” mused Bonnie.
Bonnie Warlaw served on the APD for thirty years, retiring in 1995. He recalls that he may have missed five days, not counting a car accident that broke both his legs. And one year he accidentally shot himself in the leg. But even then, rather than retiring, he continued on the force. When colleagues urged him to retire with disability, he told them, “No, I don’t want disability, I’m retiring naturally and that’s what I did.”
Life on the force was stressful, and the divorce rate was high—unless, as in Bonnie Wardlaw’s case, an officer had someone who would stick with him. Sometimes the life was really hard on spouses.
“Iris, my wife, my rock of 51 years, she stuck with me,” he says. “She is how I was able to be so effective. She was a whole lot of help. A lot of times I’d be in a bad space and Iris was my comforter.”
When asked the secret to a good marriage, he names understanding and patience. “It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong; understanding is the key. Some people say communication, or making love, but with understanding all that will come. If something is wrong and you can get a good understanding why, then you can accept, go forward. Even if you’re right, sometimes you have to act like you’re wrong until you have a complete understanding. People have different ideas about this, but I’m going to keep my understanding.”
The confinement following his automobile accident gave Bonnie a chance to really think and get some perspective on life. “I could have lost my life that day and how grateful I was for what I had including my life, and things I should let go. I’ll put it this way… God will knock you down so that you have to start over new,” said Bonnie. “God will help you through the transition, and I appreciated that.”
The second thing that truly changed his life was losing his son, “my buddy Curtis.” But despite that, he considers that “I’ve had a good life, more on the good side than bad. God has been good to me. I’m 80 years old, I have a good mind, and I eat good food. You always will want more, but I don’t stress or want for anything. I know right from wrong, which is the main thing. Live day by day. I observe, listen. By doing this I became obedient, wise, patient, and humble.”
Indeed he is.