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Triumph of the human spirit - with help from a sympathetic governor and judge (extended play)

When I first introduced you to Sylvia Johnson, some of y'all doubted that she was real.

How do I know?

Scores of you wrote or called to say “She ain’t real.”

For one thing, I admitted using a pseudonym to spare her embarrassment.

For another, her story was so unfair that many couldn’t conceive that a real human being was going through what she did.

If you thought it was unbelievable then, wait’ll you get a load of what has transpired in her life since then.

Johnson-Nutall, 66, is the woman who, in tears, called me 28 years ago lamenting that even though she was doing everything right – okay, finally! – she couldn’t catch a break.

She had spent 10 years in prison for various drug-related offenses, including riding that white horse - heroin.

That was, of course, back before the government for some reason decided “Gee, maybe we shouldn’t criminalize addiction but treat it as a medical issue instead.”

Instead of allowing the time behind bars to do her, though, Johnson did the time. She earned two college degrees and emerged drug-free, ready to take on the world.

Only thing was, the world wasn’t ready to take her on. Job interview after job interview ended with her being escorted to the exit and told “Sorry: no ex-cons allowed.”

Hence, the tearful, last-gasp phone call to her favorite columnist. (Okay, I just made that part up.)

The resulting story ran in the newspaper on a Thursday. I know because I woke up cussing thinking “Who da’ %$#& is calling me at 7 a.m. on a Thursday?”

Caller: This is Trooper Goodlaw (not his actual name). Please hold for the governor.

A minute later I heard on the other end of the phone the distinctive voice of Gov. Jim Hunt. “I read yo’ column this morning,” he said. “You have that woman call me and I’m gon’ get her a job.”

I passed along to her his Bat phone number and by the middle of the next week she was a state employee.

“I was placed in a position at Dorothea Dix,” Johnson-Nutall told me recently. “I was administrative assistant to Director of Admissions Evelyn Sanders.”

She stayed five years, she said, before leaving to work various jobs that included selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

She got married, she said, and moved to Florida, where she got a job teaching at a private school. The school axed her, she said, when it was threatened with having its state funding revoked because of her criminal record.

“I told my husband ‘If I’m going to starve, I’d rather do it in North Carolina,’” she recalled.

♬So they loaded up the truck and moved back to Raleigh.♬

Only, she didn’t starve. She subsequently worked as an intake coordinator for Southeastern Healthcare and received her MBA and Masters degree with a concentration in healthcare management.

The best part of doing what she does, she said, is connecting with other Sylvias. She tells them her story every chance she gets, she said.

“They’re more willing to listen to me because of what I’ve been through,” she said. “It gives me a sense of giving back to the community.”

In the original story, I noted that Johnson-Nutall received her degree in behavioral sciences from Shaw University within a month of her daughter graduating from high school in Oxford.

Tonita Johnson, her only child, died of heart disease in 2017.

Donnell Nutall, her husband, after suffering a debilitating heart attack in 2012, died four months after her daughter.

She now spends as much time as possible helping to raise her two granddaughters.

“They’re 11 and 12 and think they’re my grandmother,” she laughed.

Much of her time, though, is spent trying to help others avoid the perils and destruction of the drug abuse that nearly consumed her.

“That takes a lot of my time,” she said. “I can’t stop working.”

Sylvia Johnson-Nutall, with help from a sympathetic governor - and a judge who sentenced her to 45 hours of community service instead of tossing her back into the slammer when she screwed up again - managed to climb out of her seemingly hopeless situation.

Make no mistake, though: life for her – to quote the poet Langston Hughes - still “ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—


But – and this is the remarkable part - Sylvia Johnson-Nutall is still climbing whatever stairs are in her path.

Her story should be an inspiration to everyone, even those whose only encounter with jail cells is watching Otis get locked up on The Andy Griffith Show.

1 Comment

May 22, 2022

Thank you for this article. What a beautiful woman!





Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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