McCallister leaves the courthouse as an officiant
HUNTINGTON — A longtime Cabell County Magistrate and Huntington native recently reflected on his 50-year career spent at the Cabell County Courthouse as he prepares for retirement at the end of the month.
On April 1, Cabell County Magistrate Johnny McCallister will be leaving the courthouse one last time as an official and entering the life as a civilian for the first time in nearly 50 years.
The 73-year-old magistrate says he’s not ready to leave the position, but it makes financial sense, as he is losing money every month by not taking his retirement and staying in the position. He said he feels like he is married to the job and hates to leave it.
“Listen to me. I do not want to leave this job. I would stay here until I die,” he said. “I think I can do the job a whole lot better now that I’m older and I can make better decisions.”
McCallister grew up as the middle child in a close-knit family in the West End of Huntington, where he lived with his grandparents, mother and two brothers, one of whom later died in a traffic accident.
He attended Johnson Elementary and West Junior High School and Huntington High School before attending Beckley College seeking his teaching degree. He would eventually graduate with a Regents degree from Marshall University, returning
later in life while he was a sheriff’s deputy.
“It was quite an ordeal sometimes,” he said. “Usually, I had to fight my way to school and back at Johnson, but I don’t regret any minute of it. I had a wonderful childhood back in the ’50s when America was great. Huntington was great.”
McCallister said that during his childhood he spent a lot of time looking up to his big brother.
Between the two colleges, he joined the Army in 1967 and became a member of the West Virginia National Guard, which projected the rest of his life. As a part of the National Guard, McCallister was involved in some of West Virginia’s most historic moments of tragedy, including in the 1970s the Marshall University plane crash and the Buffalo Creek flood in Logan County after the breaking of a coal slurry impoundment dam.
The aftermath of the plane crash still affects him to this day, he said.
“We were put into service right then to seal off the airport and prepare that the hangar out there for victims,” he said. “We really didn’t know the extent of it but we knew the plane went down and what plane it was. I stayed out there for several days to prepare the hangar for the victims to be identified.”
McCallister said his sixweek service in Man, Logan County, was traumatic. Mud and debris was so high, it came to the wheel well on a two-and-a-half-ton truck. His job was to work with coal companies who provided construction equipment to search for victims, who would be transported to a local school for identification.
“There was nothing there. The bridges were washed out and turned sideways. There were very few buildings left in what was just leveled. The water was so bad the railroad tracks looked like a roller-coaster,” he said. “And the first few days, there was no food for us. The Salvation Army came in and they had all those old trucks, those white trucks, and fed us bologna and coffee.”
In 1969, he joined the Cabell County Sheriffs Department. When he joined, McCallister said the sheriff’s office was a political organization and the deputies would all lose their positions after four years when the sheriff was re-elected. During his first years, the Legislature was lobbied and the department obtained civil-service duties and the jobs for eight deputies became permanent. Their duties only entailed transporting criminals and serving as the court bailiffs, but in 1972 the office was transformed into a functioning law enforcement office, he said.
He graduated from the State Police Academy and was the first deputy from Cabell County to graduate from the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
“That was an honor, an absolute honor, to be able to go to that and do that,” he said.
He eventually was appointed chief investigator and stayed in the position for five years.
One of the moments he remembers most is when a fire broke out at a two-story apartment building at the hands of two small girls. McCallister was first to arrive on scene and said he helped the two escape, and also a wheelchair-bound woman from the second story with help from employees from a nearby bottling company.
Eventually he left the Sheriff’s Department and joined the prosecuting attorney’s office, where he spent 16 years as an investigator.
He left the position when a magistrate position became vacant and he was appointed to the job in 1986. It’s not a job he thought he would like, but the $10,000 pay increase seemed nice, he said. McCallister said the magistrate position was developed in West Virginia in the early 1970s, and by the time he took over, the position hadn’t progressed much.
Now, nearly every type of court case goes though the magistrate court first. McCallister says over time, the type of offender has gotten more aggressive and used to his or her criminal activity.
“The people that that we deal with, like those charged with criminal offenses, the vast majority of them don’t know anything about the father in heaven,” he said. “They don’t know who their father on earth. Yeah. They don’t know anything about the Constitution. They don’t care anything about the laws.”
As a self-proclaimed “conservative Democrat,” McCallister said playing in the political system has been hard on him over the years. The magistrate position just recently became nonpartisan. In his 30 years as a magistrate, he has lost the position twice, but kept coming back. During his “off-time,” McCallister worked as a jail assessment officer, working to find errors in the jail bill, finding thousands of dollars in errors that went back to the county.
Most of the errors he found were with paperwork sitting on desk and not being processed in a timely manner.
McCallister was wary of naming anyone who helped him reach his success in life, as he was afraid of leaving anyone out.
It’s unclear who will be appointed to take over for McCallister, but whomever it is, he hopes it’s a person who can be fair and realizes there is corruption in the court system.
“They need to be somebody that can be the people’s man,” he said. “Anybody that takes this position for a paycheck, they shouldn’t be here. They should be the people’s servant. There is the lowest scum in the world in here, but they all should be treated the same.”
He isn’t sure what retirement will hold for him, but said currently he spends all his time at the courthouse, the YMCA or on his motorcycle. McCallister was also left with permanent damage after crashing a motorcycle last year, but it hasn’t stopped him physically. He said he would love to teach a class on the magistrate court system at Marshall, if something like that came available one day.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.