S.C. city taps Clayton native

sgilman@newsobserver.comMarch 31, 2014 

Alonzo Thompson, who grew up in Clayton, speaks at his swearing-in ceremony as police chief of Spartanburg, S.C.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ALONZO THOMPSON

From ages 9 to 19, in what he calls “very formative years,” Alonzo Thompson lived in Clayton, where he cropped tobacco in the summer and played sports during the school year.

Last month, Thompson became police chief in Spartanburg, S.C. He took the job after 30 years with the Winston-Salem Police Department, where he rose to the rank of assistant chief.

“One thing that drew me to Spartanburg was the strong sense of community here,” Thompson said by phone. “There is a tremendous amount of empathy and effort to help those who are less fortunate, who have been hit hard by the downturn in the economy.”

Churches, charities and others come together to help the poor, Thompson said. “I’m excited to be a partner in that,” he said.

Thompson was born in Raleigh, but it was in Clayton that he became a man of compassion and integrity, he said.

“My work ethic, educational foundation, team concept and civic mindedness were developed and honed in Clayton,” Thompson said, adding that he was “proud to be a Clayton Comet.”

His biggest influence in Clayton was friend and mentor Joseph DeLaine, who organized a community basketball team and spent time with the youth in town. Thompson called DeLaine a father figure.

“He taught me by his example what it means to be a man, what it means to be a father,” he said. “He’s one man in my life who just had a tremendous impact on my development because of his level of interaction with us. He took time. The most valuable resource anybody has is their time, because you don’t know how much God is going to give you.”

DeLaine recalled Thompson as a “real nice young man.”

“He dated my daughter, and we played basketball together,” he recalled with a smile. DeLaine’s daughter and Thompson married different people, but the two men stayed in touch over the course of Thompson’s career.

In June of 1978, Thompson graduated from Clayton High School with plans to go to law school and enter public service. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he joined the Air Force ROTC, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was on track to become a pilot.

“When I took this battery of tests, I was flying rated,” he said. “I did really well.”

But Thompson soon discovered that while he had the aptitude, he lacked the passion for flying that he had for public service. After one year in the Air Force, he left with an honorable discharge.

Thompson had learned one big lesson from that experience: Don’t deviate from plan.

“It taught me I need to do what I love,” he said. “If I do what I love, I’ll love what I do. It kind of catapulted me into a very successful career in law enforcement.”

He joined the Winston-Salem police force and never returned to Clayton.

DeLaine hadn’t seen Thompson in several years when Thompson invited him to his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 23 in Spartanburg. DeLaine made it to the event, and Thompson said he was “extremely proud” to have him there.

“He really helped me on that path, being able to do it the right way,” he said of his mentor.

Thompson’s vision is for Spartanburg to be a “city on a hill” for compassion and service. He wants the police force to embody courage and sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice if necessary. During his time in Winston-Salem, Thompson said, the police force lost eight officers. He understands the risk of being a police officer. But to him, it is worth it.

“I read my Bible and it says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called the children of God.’ That’s how I see myself,” Thompson said.

“And it says, ‘No greater love has a man than he would lay down his life for his friends,’” he added. “You want to make that sacrifice for the benefit of others. You want people to be safe. You want them to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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