In the 33 years Marion County Coroner Norma Williamson served, she saw a lot, and in her line of work it wasn’t pleasant.
But also through the decades the county’s longest-serving elected official developed a strong sense of empathy for grieving families. In fact she said through the losses, she has made some lifelong friends. She marked building those relationships as one of the highlights of her career.
Now Williamson is putting her phone down that has rung for so many death investigation calls, retiring effective Jan. 1.
The public is invited to a reception honoring her from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 2 at the Marion County Development Partnership.
Coroner Jessie Graham, who took office at the beginning of the year following election in 2019 after Williamson announced she would not seek the post again, said he has some big shoes to fill.
“I have been working with her for a little over a month now, and she’s amazing. If I can have a smidgen of her knowledge, I know I will do good,” he said last week.
Williamson started out as deputy coroner working with then-Coroner Ed Laird. When Laird decided he wanted to run for sheriff in 1987, he encouraged her to run for the position. Williamson’s husband, Colon, also encouraged her and gave her a reminder.
“You don’t stop. You keep going. You don’t quit mid-term,” he said.
Since being elected that first time, Williamson served continuously. That’s eight full terms.
“I never believed I would have been working here this long,” she said.
For 19 years Williamson actually worked three full-time jobs, including as coroner. She also worked at Orleans Furniture and ran a kennel.
With the good comes the bad and for Williamson, she has seen a lot of the bad. She said she was surprised at how cruel people could be especially when it involves stuff that is no one else’s business.
“We’ve had a lot of bad things happen in Marion County,” she said.
One of those tragic moments that stands out was when Columbia Police Officers Wayne Henebry and Billy Patterson were killed in a shoot-out with Howard Polk Sr. on May 8, 1989.
“I was the coroner and the ambulance driver that night,” she said.
Williams said her career has been strange, sad and bittersweet all at the same time.
She tries not to focus on the death of children, something very hard to deal with even for her. She said it is automatic that any child who dies under the age of 2 is sent for an autopsy, and sometimes it could take two years to get the results back from Jackson.
In the meantime she grieves with the families as they wait for the results to allow closure.
Williamson said all the modern technology has added a lot more work but the pay is better, too.
One of the first things she plans on doing come the New Year is focusing on her health. After that she said she is going to see where retirement takes her.
Meanwhile, Graham is taking over the responsibilities of coroner. At the training he attended in Jackson, he was told some of things he would have to learn on the job, and he credits Williamson for helping him pick up that knowledge.
“Marion County has been blessed to have had her as coroner,” Graham said.