By Kyle Ferrara
People look at police officers differently when they are also deacons.
Officer H. Wilson Johnson, Canisius’ Public Safety Director for six months, served 32 years in the Rochester Police Department before joining the college ranks. The people of Rochester, many of whom Johnson said are Catholic, came to recognize him for his police work, but also for his preaching as a Catholic deacon.
“They’d be at church; I’d be preaching; They’d go, ‘oh, I know him,’” Johnson said with the most pleasant of grandfatherly laughs. “So people start finding out. And what you start finding out is that their expectation of you is different. They expect you to be different because if you’re preaching about your faith and you’re going to have any credibility, then you’d better be trying to live it, too.”
Johnson never intended to be a deacon in the Catholic Church. He grew up in a Baptist home, and didn’t convert to Catholicism until 1991 when he was in his late 30s. At that time, his kids, who were being raised Catholic like their mother, Linda, were in third and first grade, and they were just beginning their religious education. Johnson enrolled in his family’s church’s Right of Catholic Initiation for Adults program. At the Easter Vigil Mass in 1991, he was confirmed Catholic.
His commitment to the ministry of the church predates his role as deacon—he entered the diaconate in 2003 and was ordained in the Diocese of Rochester in 2005. Johnson decided at the beginning of his career in the police force that he always would act as both a Christian man and a police officer.
“They’re not mutually exclusive,” he said. “Sometimes in police work, part of your job is to do things to protect people. Sometimes that includes taking away somebody else’s freedom. And how you have to approach that is – you’re always looking to help the victim. Sometimes that has negative consequences on somebody else, but as a police officer, you’re there for the victim. That’s really who you’re looking to help out as a person. It’s interesting, the disenfranchised, the victimized, the people on the fringes, are really the same people within your outreach in the diaconate. So really those are very much the same.”
Johnson views his police work as his ministry. He always had that idea of his work, but only after he became a deacon did he really learn how to verbalize it. His commitment to the ministry, his diaconate identity, makes him a perfect fit at Canisius, something that he sensed from the minute he found out about the job opening here.
The only thing that discouraged Johnson about the career change was Canisius’ location. A move to Buffalo seemed to make little sense for him and his wife. His son and daughter-in-law live in Rochester. His wife grew up in Rochester, and besides, they agreed that if they ever did move anywhere, it would be to a warmer climate.
But a funny thing happened. Before Johnson even told his wife about the job opening, she received an offer from a former boss to work in Buffalo.
“Why would I want a job in Buffalo?” she asked her husband.
Johnson’s eyes widened.
“Let me tell you about Canisius!”
They agreed then that if he got the job at Canisius, she would look into the job offer. Linda Johnson accepted the position in Buffalo in July. Now they both are thrilled to be a part of the resurrecting Buffalo community.
It’s weird to be in the Director of Public Safety’s office and look at a naked upper lip.
While it’s unfair to continue to compare Johnson to the mustache that graced Canisius for 33 years, it is hard to not do so. Gary Everett was the manifestation of Public Safety at Canisius.
Johnson, though, isn’t trying to be the next Everett.
“One thing I know,” he said, “is I will never be Gary Everett. Gary was the face of Public Safety. He had a real gift for that, and people came to love him because of that.”
Part of it is a simple matter of time. Johnson doesn’t have 33 years to spend at Canisius. But another part of it is that it would be dishonest to try to be Everett when he should be trying to be just ‘Wil’ Johnson.
“I think the thing that I would like [students] to see is I want them to see me as being friendly, fair, that I know my business, but that I’m somebody that they can trust if they need Public Safety for something, that I’m somebody that they can trust to be fair,” Johnson said.
Fairness, trustworthiness, and friendliness have all been tools in his tool belt during his 32 years as a municipal police officer, and it should be easy for the veteran officer to translate those skills to the collegiate realm.
“It’s different than being a municipal police officer,” Johnson said. “It does let you be more friendly here. That’s one that I hope that they see is that I’m a friendly person. I do like the students there. It’s been a great start to my career here. I’ve been very happy with what I’ve seen.”