Memphis Woman Earns Degree After Serious Car Wreck

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Shalonda Jackson walks across stage at LOC commencement to accept her degree. She graduated from Whitehaven High School in 1987. A devastating auto accident caused the 30-year delay. Photo by Markum Stansbury Sr.

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – If it had not been for sheer will power and the determination to finish what she had started 30 years ago, Shalonda Patryce Jackson wouldn’t have been ready to walk across the commencement stage to receive the Bachelor of Science in Education.

But she was more than ready for that crowning achievement on the morning of May 13, when The LeMoyne-Owen College kicked off its 147th Commencement ceremony at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood in Memphis.

Donning cap, gown, tassel and the purple and gold stole, Jackson remembered how far she’d come to this point in her life and made her way to the stage to complete her final journey to academic achievement.

That sterling moment almost didn’t happen, though. On May 28, 1990 – Memorial Day weekend – Jackson and Sherian Boyd, her roommate and best friend, were en route to Memphis from Washington D.C. and careened the rented car Boyd was driving into a grove of trees in Greenville, Tenn., about 56 miles from Knoxville.

Boyd had fallen asleep at the wheel, but managed to crawl from the back seat of the twisted Lumina with a broken leg and fractured ribs just in time to beckon a trucker to stop. Like the Good Samarian, the trucker stopped to help.

Jackson, whom Boyd thought was dead, had to be airlifted to Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport, Tenn. Her prognosis? Not good. She’d suffered brain trauma, a right broken leg, and lapsed into a coma.

Beverly Wade said she’d forbidden Jackson to come home because she’d hosted a party at Sherrods to celebrate her daughter’s 21st birthday on May 14, 14 days before the accident.

Wade’s admonishment was no doubt a second thought after receiving an alarming phone call from Boyd’s mother, who broke the news that the two Howard University students had wrecked the car on the way to Boyd’s brother’s graduation in Memphis.

“Shalonda was in Kingsport in a coma for two months,” said Wade, who dropped everything and rushed to Kingsport to be with her daughter. She was there for the duration while her husband, Bill Wade, other family members and clergy, made the trek as much as possible.

The doctors didn’t think Jackson was going to pull through, Wade said. They were giving up hope that their life-saving equipment wouldn’t be enough to save Jackson. Wade, on the other hand, was praying for a miracle.

“When we arrived at the hospital, she didn’t even know she was in the world,” said Wade, refusing to give credence to the doctors’ grim report. For assurance, she turned to God – and some tranquilizers and valiums to calm down.

“When we walked into the ICU, she had a trachea in her throat,” Wade observed. “She had a cast covering her entire face.”

When the coma finally released Jackson from a state of deep unconsciousness, she opened her eyes to a world that was remotely familiar. But she couldn’t remember the serious accident that had mangled her body and nearly took her life.

The accident only delayed Jackson’s quest to finish her education. “It was a setback,” she said. “I knew what kind of student I was and I knew things weren’t the same.”

Jackson graduated from Whitehaven High School in 1987 and was studying for a career in pharmacy. “It was hard then,” she said. “But having a head injury and losing a little of my thinking…I just couldn’t remember all of that stuff.”

Five years after the accident, Markhum “Mark” L. Stansbury Sr., a family friend and then interim president of the former Shelby State Community College (now Southwest Tennessee Community College), mentored Jackson and encouraged her to enroll.

Dr. Gina M. Stewart, who served as Dean of Admissions at the college, also mentored Jackson and supported her efforts to finish the course. Stewart, the senior pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church, stuck by Jackson’s side since the accident and subsequent rehabilitation.

“I was able to drive down to Shelby State and talk to her. She (Stewart) told me that enrolling in Shelby State would be a start,” said Jackson, who went on to earn an Associates Degree.

She discovered thereafter that the two-year degree wouldn’t cut the muster in the job market.

“Everybody was looking for experience,” she said. “How can I have experience when I’m fresh out of college? So I kept working and decided to go to a four-year institution.”

Jackson was working at Kroger’s – where she is employed part time today – but pursuing a four-year degree superseded everything else.

She first enrolled at the University of Memphis before matriculating at Howard. After the accident, she went back to the U of M, then Shelby State, and transferred from there to LeMoyne in 2013.

It was difficult physically and mentally to pull it all back together, said Jackson, now 48. “I don’t walk the same. But I pretty much do the same things that everybody else does.”

She is not like everybody else, though. The accident couldn’t stop her from pursuing an education. Her resolve wouldn’t falter.

“I’ve taken the Praxis 1 exam and now I’m working on completing my certification. I didn’t pass the first time,” said Jackson, a teacher’s assistant at Melrose High School.

If Jackson had given up after the accident, she wouldn’t be where she is today. So she’s determined to pass the Praxis to make her life just a litter better.

“It’s something that’s been in me all my life,” she said.

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