Christmas traditions

We have to be careful when we plan something special for our family because if we do it once, the boys will insist on making it a tradition. This is especially true of Christmas.

We begin the season by decorating our home the weekend after Thanksgiving, often getting a jump by hauling the bins of decorations from the basement on Friday. On Saturday, we go out for a big breakfast at IHOP and head to Lowe’s for a tree. Since our oldest son, Barron, joined the University of Georgia’s Redcoat Marching Band and has to play at the annual Georgia-Georgia Tech game the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we’ve had to move up the timetable on this tradition to Black Friday, but that hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm.

There was one year, though, when the boys’ enthusiasm was greatly dampened. I didn’t realize how important the ingrained tradition was until the boys threatened to boycott Christmas altogether when we went to Home Depot for our tree because it was closer to IHOP than Lowe’s. When we pulled into Home Depot, the boys were aghast and refused to get out of the car.

“You are ruining Christmas!” they protested.

The Wallace family crams into a booth at the International House of Pancakes.
IHOP after Thanksgiving to commence a day of decorating is our traditional breakfast of champions!

We had no choice but to load up and drive down Highway 78 the two or three miles to Lowe’s. We have been able to get the boys to expand their idea of the tradition in recent years because the quality of the Lowe’s trees diminished so greatly. In 2019 and 2020 we bought our tree at Randy’s Water Gardens in Lawrenceville, which they tolerated only because we also went to Lowe’s to buy replacement light strings, spotlight bulbs or other items that enhance our home’s holiday visual presentation. It is worth noting we have been back at Lowe’s the past two years.

While decorating the house, rather than the strains of Christmas music, we typically have college football on. Because our decorating falls on Rivalry Weekend, we have our pick of intra-state match-ups to serve as our background noise. Our preferred games are Georgia-Georgia Tech and Auburn-Alabama, but others fill in so that there’s not a gap from noon to midnight.

Barron, Harris and Carlton Wallace hang ornaments on a lit frasier fir Christmas tree as their little white miniature poodle looks on.
The boys strategically place their special ornaments competing for most the eye-catching placements.

The decorating is not complete until the boys’ Christmas ornament for the year has been revealed. Carla began the tradition when Barron was little, and we thoroughly enjoy picking the ornament based on something significant from their lives that year. The plan is for each of our children to get 21 ornaments as keepsakes when they leave home. It brings us so much joy to decorate with these glass ornaments and listen to the boys reminisce about each one.

Our Christmas season has some traditions driven by the boys’ involvement in band. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the selections at the Christmas concert each year, including Barron’s turn to take the baton and conduct the Parkview band in “Sleigh Ride” during his senior year as drum major.

We’ve also enjoyed the annual Lilburn Christmas Parade. We started participating with the Cub Scouts, but the Parkview Marching Band has been our reason to attend in recent years. Bundling up and finding a good spot helps us enjoy this community event and appreciate the quality of life we enjoy in Lilburn.

As Christmas approaches, we pick a night to go out to dinner and drive around looking at Christmas lights. We used to listen to our favorite Christmas CDs, like Harry Connick Jr.’s “Harry for the Holidays,” but thanks to Spotify, we now have a playlist that includes all of our favorites, including “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Merry Christmas from the Family,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The restaurant changes each year, but the laughter and imitating Nanny’s pet phrase “Look over yonder!” are always a treasured feature of the evening.

Our Christmas Eve traditions include church, eating soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and watching “A Christmas Story.” One year the power went out in our neighborhood, and we went to La Sabrosita, a nearby Mexican restaurant that has since closed. We learned that disruptions to traditions can make the event more memorable. By the time we got home, power was restored, and Santa managed to find our house as usual.

Bedtime on Christmas Eve has been pushed back as the boys age. They no longer rush to bed so Santa can come. Christmas morning, though, still comes early as they cannot contain their excitement for exchanging gifts. Harris, in particular, has the most enthusiasm, stemming from his love of Lego. He knows that in order to complete the sets he gets for Christmas, he’ll need to start early.

To allow Carla some time to enjoy the day and not spend all Christmas in the kitchen, our tradition is to have brunch. She’ll make a breakfast casserole the day before and throw it in the oven before the presents are unwrapped. We always have pastries with it and often a tray of oven-cooked, brown sugar bacon. We spend the day in our pajamas and enjoy Christmas music all day long.

After Christmas we go to Florida to see my parents and about every other year some combination of aunts and uncles and cousins. It’s the one time of year they get to experience Lake Wales, Florida, where I last lived at home, and, frankly, it’s the best time of year to visit. The humidity is low and the temperatures are typically in the 70s. Granny and Paw Paw have lots of outdoor fun in their yard, including a tree swing, fire pit, and outdoor games like croquet and carpet ball.

Carla and I got engaged on New Year’s Eve, but we don’t have any traditions for ringing in the new year. Many years, we’ve been in bed asleep by the time the calendar flips over to the next year, but we have tried to attend parties with friends on occasion. The last time we tried to host, our children were young, and all our friends, who also had small kids, left by 9 p.m., exhausted from wrangling their offspring, who were getting cranky from staying up past their bedtime. We decided a long time ago that ringing in the new year is overrated.

Our holiday traditions are important to our family, and I can’t wait to see what traditions our boys create with their families one day.

Thankful for great memories

Memories are fleeting. They come and go on their own timetable. I treasure my children and different memories of them flash into mind at seemingly random moments. Here are memories I cherish and hope revisit me often as the boys grow into adulthood:

Barron

Parents know the least with their firstborn, and we didn’t even know what we didn’t know. We had to pull over during our drive home from the hospital because our newborn was crying in his car seat. We weren’t out of the parking lot five minutes before our circumstances outstripped our knowledge. We were pretty clueless.

Carla Wallace gives infant Barron Wallace a bath in a plastic baby tub on the kitchen counter.
Amazingly, Barron didn’t like bathing on the kitchen counter in the middle of February.

Barron was born in early February. He spent a lot of time in his footed pajamas and snuggly blankets as we conscientiously tried to keep him warm. For some reason, though, we never seemed to care how his body temperature dropped during bath time.

“He must really hate baths,” we thought. “He shakes and cries a lot.”

While we had fun playing with our newborn in the baby tub on the counter top in the kitchen in the middle of winter, we had the benefit of wearing clothes and having adult layers of built-in insulation. He was 10 pounds and completely exposed to the elements. Even with warm water and a strategically placed wash cloth, he shivered every time.

It was only in hindsight that we realized he was probably just cold. First born babies have a lot of teaching to do, and Barron’s brothers benefited from that and other lessons he taught us.

But he was cute, flailing his little arms and legs and splaying his fingers and toes, splashing us.

Harris

Our family has made many lasting memories at Santa Rosa Beach. One of my favorites is the summer I spent intentional time teaching Harris to ride a bike without training wheels.

The school year had proven too busy between Harris’s studies and my work schedule to make much progress on teaching him to ride his bike. Barron tried teaching him, too, using the methods his friend, Tyler Bennett, had used in helping him get the hang of it. It mostly consisted of Barron riding his bike down the hill in the grass in our backyard, giving him a soft place to crash and enough of a slope to help him build forward momentum.

Harris Wallace wearing an orange t-shirt, khaki shorts and a blue and orange bicycle helmet stands with his red bicycle among palm trees and palmetto bushes in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.
Harris learned from his big brother that crashing on grass is a lot better than crashing on concrete.

Crashing was Harris’s biggest fear, so the grassy location was key. That year we stayed at a beach house in Old Florida Village, a community of vacation rentals with streets ideal for kids to bicycle. But the pavement was intimidating to Harris, and there were occasional speed bumps that had to be negotiated in the street. There were two grassy lots used for overflow parking, and Harris felt safer trying out his wobbly skills in those softer areas. Of course, the pedaling was more difficult, but when he fell over, all he got was dirty and not skinned up.

The missing ingredient was a slope. Florida is notoriously flat, and it was hard for Harris to gather much speed to learn how to keep his bike moving forward through the grass. We decided to load his bike in the back of the van and drive down 30A a mile or so to Gulf Place, a mixed use development with shops, cafes, condos and a large, grass amphitheater for concerts and shows. We began our 30A vacations staying at Gulf Place, and we always visited the artists’ booths, ice cream shop and the pizza place whether we stayed there or not. And when our vacations coincided with concerts, we took our beach chairs and towels and listened to live music on the lawn.

The lawn was the perfect place for Harris to complete his training and forever throw off the shackles of his training wheels. Mostly flat, the lawn sloped very subtly to a drain in the center. If you started in the corners of the field, you could get a good head of steam to go down through the middle to the opposite corner. The low-cut, bent grass helped Harris feel good about falling over, if it occurred, and I ran along behind him, my hand on the back of his seat to steady him.

Always hot at the beach, I worked up a sweat running after Harris as he made repeated trips from corner to corner of the lawn. After a half hour or so, Harris was making the trip himself, grinning from ear to ear. Before that vacation ended, he was cycling around the perimeter of the lawn on the sidewalk, and navigating the streets of Old Florida Village with a new found confidence and sense of freedom.

Carlton

As the youngest, Carlton has both benefited and suffered from being treated like the baby. He was cuddled and kissed long after he needed it or wanted it. My fondest memory with Carlton was the day I had the opportunity to drop him off and pick him up from the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods and witnessed him as a fully capable human being with talents and tastes all his own.

By this point in his culinary education, Carlton had already taken six or seven of the half-day cooking classes for kids at Salud, and he was on a first name basis with Chef Scott. We were among the first to arrive, and though no other kids were there yet, Carlton insisted I could go ahead and leave. He found the aprons and helped Chef Scott lay out the utensils as I lingered by the door. It made me happy to see him in his element, comfortable in his surroundings and feeling confident with his abilities.

Carlton Wallace in a blue T-shirt holds a fork of french toast ready to eat it with wooden tables and chairs in the background at the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods in John's Creek, Georgia.
The best part of the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods was the tasting!

I went across the street to Panera and had a leisurely breakfast, working on a writing project on my laptop. Leaving myself a little more than an hour, I headed back down State Bridge Road to Kroger where I completed the family’s weekly grocery shopping. I arrived back at Whole Foods in time to see them finishing up with the “Special Weekend Menu” breakfast and prepared to serve us.

Carlton attentively showed me to the buffet where he and I fixed our plates. He breathlessly gave me the rundown on each item and the special tricks they had employed to make them just so. There were blueberry pancakes with buttermilk syrup; baked eggs with sausage, spinach and cheese; easy breakfast potatoes; candied bacon (Carlton’s favorite) and homemade buttermilk biscuits (my favorite.)

It smelled and tasted delicious, and I savored each bite as Carlton and I enjoyed the food and each other’s company. I knew Carla would be jealous, so we scraped together some leftovers to bring to her.

As much as I enjoyed the food, I relished the time with Carlton even more. I was on his turf in a place unfamiliar to me but very familiar to him. He knew some of the other kids in the class and felt at home with Chef Scott and the other adult volunteers. He beamed with pride at having created such satisfying food.

I will never forget the feeling of deep joy of experiencing him doing what he loved and sharing it with me.

These are three memories I should reflect on more often when circumstances seem dire. They will sustain me, lift my spirits and help me reconnect with my boys. Memories such as these have cemented our bonds to withstand the inevitable trials that will strain them.

Origins of a passion for writing

I have been drawn to writing as a creative activity since childhood.

It started by inventing stories in my head. It grew into imitation when in the 7th grade I read William Faulkner’s 1942 short story “The Bear,” and I wrote my own story of a bear hunt gone awry. In the 8th grade, my classmates and I started a school newspaper to satisfy my itch to try journalism and to make a little money for a class field trip to St. Augustine.

By the time I reached high school, I was involved in a writing circle with friends. We called it “The Story War.” We took turns writing stories about a common set of characters whose adventures intersected and intertwined in ways that tested our creativity and problem solving. Each of us had a main character, and in the pre-internet days, we circulated our stories to each other by reproducing them on dot matrix printers and sending them through the U.S. mail. There were four of us in the group — two in Florida, Dwayne and me, and two in Texas, Fred and Cliff. It occupied hours of my imaginings and fed my love of storytelling and creative expression.

A blue, three-ring binder with dot matrix printed pages is overlaid by a hand-drawn map in pencil, a stack of story pages and a table of contents.
Can’t you hear the crackling spew of ink from a dot matrix printer while the rotating wheels pulled the continuous form paper through? The seriousness of the genre is also clearly communicated by the choice of font.

In high school, I gravitated toward newspaper journalism as a way to earn a living as a writer. In the unsophisticated way a teenager thinks about careers, I knew I loved to write but thought writing books could be an undependable source of income. According to my logic, writing for newspapers would be a steady gig, and I could write books on the side.

After my introduction to journalism in 8th grade, I joined the high school yearbook staff in 10th grade and took journalism as an independent study in the 11th. The summer after my junior year, I applied and was selected for an internship at our local newspaper, the now defunct Lake Wales Daily Highlander. Each year The Highlander hired a rising senior to write a weekly column and help out around the newsroom as the intern’s schedule and skill allowed.

I loved writing the column and took it very seriously. I loved trying out the SAT words I was learning. Some of my early columns required readers to have a dictionary at their elbow in order to make sense of what I was trying to say. The high school administration was also not particularly fond of my more aggressive attempts at satire.

I was called to meet with the principal after one column in which I deployed hyperbole to describe the construction projects going on in the buildings during the school day. I posited that projects of such scale would cause much less disruption during the summer. When I sat down across from Mr. Windham, the principal, I saw my column on the desk in front of him, marked up in red. He took me through each of my factual errors. I don’t remember printing a retraction, but I do remember learning that a weekly column came with power and responsibility.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at The Highlander full time. I mostly did clerical writing such as obituaries, but when the news reporters were on vacation, I covered the police beat, county court and city budget hearings. Because I enjoyed sports, I latched onto opportunities in that genre, covering Lake Wales Little League as closely as if it were Major League Baseball, and endured the editing supervision of sports editor Bob Perkins. He once told me while editing a particularly egregious story in which I erroneously substituted “aloud” for “allowed” throughout to describe how many runs a pitcher “allowed,” that “This isn’t writing, it’s typing!”

My time at The Highlander gave me an unmatched experience for someone my age, and by the time I arrived at college to officially earn a degree in journalism, I had already tackled a number of challenges many of my peers wouldn’t experience until their senior internship or even after they started their careers. I began writing for the student newspaper, The Tropolitan, immediately, and found myself in a Reporting 1 class my freshman year.

In addition to the writing I did for The Trop, as it was affectionately known, I also served as a peer tutor at the university’s Writing Center. All students who tested into the remedial English classes were required to attend a writing lab one hour a week at the Writing Center, and the tutors led the labs. It was more than a little awkward when I, as an 18-year-old freshman, handed out and graded assignments from 21-year-old upperclassmen. Working at the Writing Center solidified my knowledge of the rules of grammar and gave me an even stronger foundation for writing clean copy and editing others’ work.

During my time at Troy I also developed the habit of journaling. I incorporated it as a part of my daily Bible reading and prayer time. I have never gone back to read those early attempts to process my understanding of scripture or work through crises of faith, but the practice is still part of my daily routine to this day.

My journalism career progressed from The Daily Highlander and Tropolitan to The Destin Log and The Macon Telegraph before I moved into higher education and nonprofit communications. During those years, I had largely abandoned the dream of creative writing, but in the summer of 2004 after completing an MBA, I felt the creative itch return.

I had been ignoring the whole reason I had chosen newspapers and communications as a career in the first place. So during our vacation that summer at Santa Rosa Beach, I spent an hour or so each day working on a novel. I wrote the first five chapters of my work, tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and reconnected with my love of writing.

I finished the first draft in 2009, and at more than 140,000 words was too intimidated to do the work necessary to edit it down to the more appropriate 100,000 words or less most first-time authors get when they publish. I was also reading about the publishing industry trying to implement the advice of launching my own platform. The conventional wisdom of the publishing industry was that you would be more desirable to agents and publishers if you had a built-in following who would buy your books.

So in March of 2011 I launched this web log, or blog as it is more commonly known. I called it “New South Essays” and tried to brand myself as a commentator on life in the modern South. Because I felt that my novel was a work of contemporary Southern fiction, I thought this would give me access to the readers who might be susceptible to buying my book when the time came.

For three years I published a New South Essay each week. In August 2012 when I went to work for Georgia Tech, learning to communicate in a technical field and managing a large staff sapped all of my energy for writing. Plus, the demands of a growing family caused me to lose touch with my zeal for expression again. I put the blog on hiatus in the fall of 2014, and once again strayed from my love of writing.

During my time at Georgia Tech I satisfied my itch to write by taking on freelance writing assignments for Baptist publisher, Smyth & Helwys. I wrote several units of Sunday School lessons for its Formations line, devotions for its annual Reflections guide and started a blog called “A View from the Pew” which provided a lay person’s perspective on church life. With such a demanding day job, my writing dwindled to once a month, and my creativity shriveled.

I finally figured out my pattern in the spring of 2020 when the outbreak of COVID-19 rearranged our lives. No longer commuting two hours a day to downtown and back for my job with the University System of Georgia, I found I had more time in the mornings to write again. I was inspired to re-launch New South Essays on a monthly schedule, alternating writing weeks among A View from the Pew, New South Essays and the re-write on my novel. And when Carla gave me the unique anniversary gift in May of weekly memoir prompt Storyworth, I found myself once filled with excitement and energy for the written word.

What started as a spark of creativity has grown into quite a collection: two blogs, hundreds of newspaper articles, thousands of news releases and promotional pieces, speeches, media statements and an unpublished novel. Writing is a passion that draws me back whenever I wander away from it.

Here’s hoping I don’t lose sight of that truth again.

So glad she was born

(In honor of Carla’s birthday on Nov. 13, here’s a reflection on our introduction and courtship.)

My deepest and most profound season of happiness came in January of 1996.

One Sunday night after church, I was introduced to a young woman who worked with the children in the nursery. The Sunday night crowd was always small, and after worship I emerged from the chapel to be greeted by a crescent of friends that included the pastor’s wife, the children’s minister and the director of preschool ministries.

At the end of this semi-circle was a woman I didn’t recognize. I suspected it was a set up immediately. They introduced the young woman as Carla Barron, a Mercer student who worked downstairs in the nursery. She seemed nice and was attractive, but I put the encounter out of my mind almost immediately.

Either out of stubbornness or fear, I didn’t feel I was ready to date at that point, having just emerged from a relationship and trying to recalibrate my identity as an individual.

Lance Wallace and Carla Barron stand in a kitchen with an array of cut fruit, crackers, dips and a dozen yellow roses in a vase.
The glow of young love on full display. Can’t hide that much happiness.

I was consumed with work and planning the Southeast regional conference for the Society of Professional Journalists. Scheduled for April in Macon that year, I had meetings after work most days as the planning committee lined up speakers and nailed down details such as the location for the opening night reception and the conference hotel. I took my volunteer responsibilities as the regional director seriously, and I used the extra work as an excuse not to think about dating and especially not the intriguing young woman at church.

My church friends were persistent. Every time I saw them, they found a way to bring up Carla. It wasn’t long before they suggested we all go to Cracker Barrel after church on a Sunday night. That’s how I found myself across the table from her with all of our church friends doing their best to get us together.

In the course of the conversation, we landed on the subject of books and what everyone was reading. I made disparaging remarks about Danielle Steele, even though I had never read anything she had written, and Carla offered that she liked Danielle Steele and had read many of her books. It wasn’t the last time I would put my foot in my mouth with Carla or that Carla would speak her mind forthrightly.

The next Wednesday night after prayer meeting, I felt drawn downstairs to the nursery, though I had no business being there. I found Carla watching the children out on the playground, and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. She didn’t seem to hold my disdain for Danielle Steele against me. The conversation was pleasant and easy, and I told her I would call her sometime. This went on for several months before I finally came to my senses.

The journalism conference went off without a hitch in late April, and I could no longer hide behind planning the conference as an excuse. That’s when Carla’s honesty got my attention. The next Wednesday during my weekly visit with her on the playground, I apologized for not calling. She responded with the expected and typical “It’s OK,” but then she paused and surprised me.

“No, it’s not OK,” she said, without a hint of anger. “If you want to call me, call me. If you don’t want to, don’t. Just quit saying you’re going to call me if you’re not.”

That’s when it hit me how selfish and inconsiderate I had been. I realized I had been jerking her around for months. She was interested in me, and I was creating expectations of getting together and not following through. By that point, I knew she was nice and intelligent, and as our pastor’s wife described her to me on multiple occasions, “quality.” Carla didn’t deserve to be treated that way.

So the next day I called her and asked her to dinner the next Friday night. She agreed, thankfully not returning my bad behavior by playing hard to get.

I picked her up after her shift at Interior Bargains. We went to J.L.’s barbecue restaurant, which I purposefully chose because it wasn’t fancy or extravagant. I didn’t want our surroundings to get in the way of getting to know each other, and I was still tentative about re-entering the dating scene. I felt I could be more honest and more myself if we were having a plate of pulled pork barbecue and slaw rather than filet mignon and arugula salad.

It worked like truth serum. The conversation flowed naturally and honestly all through dinner. Not wanting to end our conversation but careful not to send the wrong message, I invited her back to my apartment to sit on the screened-in porch and continue our conversation. We sat in the porch swing and talked through the night, confessing our personality disorders, character flaws and past relationship missteps. We shared our stories and bonded. Our connection was strong, our feelings were real, and our future together became concrete. I was convinced she was the one I wanted to see more often and get to know better.

For the next eight months we went out nearly every week. I would pick her up at her apartment on Mercer’s campus, which felt weird. I had been out of college for four years at that point, and dating a college girl seemed to be robbing the cradle. I convinced myself it was OK because Carla had finished her classes in December but was still living in an on-campus apartment until graduation in May.

I met her parents and went to her graduation where NBC Today Show anchor Katie Couric spoke. Carla attended the singles Sunday School class I taught at church, and we started attending group outings as a couple. The group spent a day on Lake Sinclair skiing and riding a tube. I had to leave early to take a friend from college to dinner for her birthday. It was awkward, but I had committed to the evening before Carla and I started dating. While I enjoyed seeing my friend and wanted to show here a nice time for her birthday, I spent the entire evening thinking about Carla, worried that she would think I was two-timing her.

Over time it became clear she was the one I was interested in, and when I spent three weeks in a hotel by the Atlanta airport while covering the 1996 Summer Olympics, she wrote me nearly every day. We exchanged letters like I was off at war. Absence, although only 90 miles, definitely made my heart grow fonder for Carla.

Later that summer I took her to Lake Wales to meet my parents, and we spent a day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. My brothers warmed to her, and my parents liked her immediately. The affirmations of our relationship kept adding up, and it didn’t take long before I realized I could marry her… I should marry her.

She made me genuinely happy in a deep and profound way I had never experienced in previous relationships. My fear of marrying the wrong person felt silly and misplaced. She had all the traits I was looking for, and I knew I could commit to a lifetime with her.

I’ve written in great detail about our engagement a few months back. The four months of planning our wedding were stressful, but we were both in a stage of life that made delaying seem foolish. We married on May 3, one week shy of the one-year anniversary of our first date.

Those 358 days were the happiest of my life.

Who inspires me

I am blessed by a number of people in my life who inspire me.

Jesus inspires me to love. I start each day before everyone rises to spend time alone in prayer and with the scriptures. The words and example of Jesus comfort and challenge me. Jesus not only commanded me to love God and love my neighbor, he showed me how. When I read his story and pay close attention, I am inspired to love unconditionally and without expectation.

Lance and Carla hug in front of a sand dune at Grayton Beach under a blue sky with white, fluffy clouds.
See? Don’t I look inspired?

Carla inspires me to be my best. Feeling needed and appreciated is a feedback loop that has created a never-ending cycle in our marriage of wanting and trying to do better. She gives me honest feedback and helps me prioritize what is truly important. She helps me focus on elements of life beyond myself, helping me avoid a shallow and self-absorbed existence. Left to my own devices, I could become too insular and selfish. She engages me directly and pulls me out of my self-protecting habits to share my feelings, good and bad, and put effort into the best areas of my life.

Barron Wallace in his red University of Georgia polo shirt waves at the camera in the middle of the Redcoat band in the stands at Sanford Stadium in Athens during the spring game in April 2022.
Barron has loved Redcoats, and thoroughly enjoyed his opportunity to conduct the band in the stands last April as part of his audition for drum major. He was one of eight finalists, but he didn’t make the final cut. More persistence!

Barron inspires me to persist. As the oldest, Barron has had to endure a lot of parenting missteps. He has developed a thick skin and a tolerance for hard work that continues to pay dividends. When he didn’t get any leadership roles in marching band at the end of his freshman year, he didn’t complain, and he asked us not to go to the band directors and complain on his behalf. Instead, he put his head down, went to work and spent his sophomore year leading by example, without a title. His work ethic and positive attitude combined with his mastery of conducting set up him up to serve as a drum major for his junior and senior year of high school. After attending drum major camp at the University of Georgia for two years, his heart was set on attending the state’s flagship institution and march in and eventually conduct their renown Redcoat Marching Band. Despite repeated attempts to get his SAT score up in the mid-range for UGA admissions standards, the best he could muster was to get wait-listed. When he was ultimately denied admission for fall semester 2019, he gratefully accepted his place at Kennesaw State University, auditioned and played trumpet in the Marching Owls. He auditioned for drum major as a freshman after learning how to handle a mace and master the high-step stadium entrance required of the Owls’ drum major, and he won the position. He maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average through his first year, and within days of reporting to band camp for his second year at KSU, he received notification that he had been admitted to UGA for spring semester 2021. He is more than half way through his second season as a Redcoat trumpet player and was eyewitness to the national championship, had an opportunity to audition for drum major and is a rank leader in the trumpet section this year while the Dawgs pursue a repeat. That is persistence, and when I see how much effort Barron puts into reaching for his goals, I am inspired to do the same.

Harris Wallace holds his Gwinnett Student Leadership Team certificate in front of a screen with a project image that says "Thank you for attending the 2022 GSLT Graduation" at the Gwinnett County Board of Education offices.
This fella is going places, and he loves learning.

Harris inspires me to learn. As the middle son, Harris has carved his own niche, distinguishing himself from his older brother. He has his own personality, but he is continuing many of the positive habits of hard work and goal setting. Harris has an insatiable thirst for knowledge about history, public policy, leadership, government and the interplay among them. His ability to recall names, dates and events serves him well when making arguments, either in mock trial or negotiating an after-dinner trip to Bruster’s for ice cream. Even with the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and his isolation in the basement for hours a day of online learning, Harris routinely put in five or six additional hours of study to complete assignments or go down rabbit holes to learn more about topics he wants to understand better. Whether it’s LEGO, Lord of the Rings, World War II or governors of Georgia, Harris’s obsessions are fed by an unquenchable desire to know things and understand how they work. Just half-way through his high school career, Harris has yet to make a “B” in a subject, and I have no doubt he will achieve his academic and professional goals, which are lofty. He has served as a band captain for three years for the Parkview Marching Band and led the Parkview Mock Trial team to the regional finals last year, the farthest the team had ever progressed. When I spend time with Harris and really listen to his verbal exploration of ideas, I am inspired to use my time and energy to be a life-long learner.

Carlton Wallace dressed in a purple and blue with a blue painted face portrays the genie in a scene with Aladdin on stage in front of a black curtain in a production of the musical Aladdin Jr. this fall.
I ain’t never had a son like Carlton, who sings “Ain’t never had a friend like me” from Aladdin with gusto during this fall’s performance at Smoke Rise Academy of Arts.

Carlton inspires me to create. As the youngest, he faces the greatest potential for becoming overwhelmed by his older brothers’ interests, achievements and pursuits, but his strong will and matching personality cause him to make his own way. When the omnipresent screens in his life are made to go dark, his mind reacts like flame to oxygen. His artistic instincts have found expression in drawing and painting, writing and storytelling, theater and the dramatic arts, singing, playing piano, and even baking and cooking dishes that please both his sweet tooth and his taste for the savory. He possesses a quick wit that can serve as his muse. When he exercises his creativity muscle, he becomes self-actualized in a profound way that he doesn’t fully understand or appreciate yet. When I have moments of clarity in my time with him, I am amazed at how his mind works and processes life around him. When I see him on stage belting out a ballad or pulling big laughs from the audience, I am inspired to make time for creative pursuits and recognize how much that contributes to my quality of life and feeds my need for creative expression.

Sharon and Larry Wallace stand with Barron Wallace, dressed in his blue high school graduation regalia, in the middle.
We haven’t been able to spend much time together physically in recent years, but my weekly phone conversations help me stay connected with Mom and Dad.

My parents inspire me to display integrity. I believe character is taught more than inherited, and I have been blessed to have been raised by parents who placed high value on honesty, fairness, hard work and trustworthiness. Throughout my youth while I was under their roof, these principles were reinforced. Now that I am a parent and our interactions are largely reduced to one or two visits a year and weekly phone calls, I hear in their conversations a desire not only for my happiness and for the fulfillment of my family but a hope that I am contributing and making a difference in the world by being a person of character. They have often said that my title and level in the organizational hierarchy doesn’t matter to them nearly as much as that I am honest and work hard. They inspire me to do things the right way.

Cynthia Barron wearing a white top and green sweater sits with her daughter, Carla Wallace in a blue dress and white cardigan, at a restaurant for Mother's Day lunch.
We love having Mama close by and are the beneficiaries of her kindness and her life lessons.

My mother-in-law inspires me to be kind. I’ve never heard her say anything bad about anyone, and whether she liked that person or not, she treats everyone she has dealings with kindly. I’m sure she has her moments, but she keeps them well hidden. I’m sure I have gotten on her nerves, too, but all I have ever received from her is generosity, affection, love and support. When I am in her presence, I am reminded that kindness is in short supply in this world and experiencing it from someone is a great gift. Cynthia inspires me to give people the benefit of the doubt and express genuine kindness rather than frustration or anger.

Bob Perkins and Lance Wallace make silly grins for a "selfie" in a waiting area at the Atlanta Airport.
If this isn’t the look of inspiration, I don’t know what it is.

Bob inspires me to laugh. Bob Perkins and I have been friends since 1987 when he showed up as the fresh-out-of-Baylor University sports editor of The Lake Wales Daily Highlander. His rambunctious energy and sometimes over-the-top sense of humor pulled me out of my shell and helped me embrace the absurd in some of life’s most difficult situations. Over the years we have maintained a friendship through sharing brief conversations and enjoying periods when we lived near enough to each other that visits and lunches and ballgames were treasured times of distraction and amusement. Bob knows me well, and he reminds me to laugh when circumstances can feel overwhelming.

Brian Greer and Lance Wallace stand in Lance's office at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wearing tacky Christmas sweaters.
Great holiday fashion choices are just another of the wellness outcomes from Brian’s inspiration.

Brian inspires me to be healthy. It’s not just that Brian Greer is 15 years my junior and has not yet had to have any surgeries or prolonged layoffs from exercise because of injury. I respect his discipline in not eating a French fry in more than 20 years. He’s careful about what he puts in his body and how he takes care of himself. With a wife and four children, he understands that there are habits he can embrace now that will allow him to enjoy life longer as he ages. He also has wisdom beyond his years about the need for balance. He inspires me to embrace well-being in all the facets of life: spiritual, physical, mental and emotional.

Clyde Edgerton, wearing glasses and a dark sweater, sits on a porch with trees in the background.
If you’re not familiar with his work, do yourself a favor and go order “Walking Across Egypt” as soon as you finish reading this post.

Clyde Edgerton inspires me to write. There are many writers whose work I admire, but the author I consistently enjoy and relate to and derive inspiration from is North Carolina-born Clyde Edgerton. He so deftly weaves stories of family, faith, tradition, race, class, humor, and Southern identity, I marvel at his books and wish to find my own voice to reach others in a similar way. The opportunity I had back in 2011 to hear him speak at the Decatur Book Festival was a treat, and I reflect on it often when I’m stuck in the middle of the re-write of my book. I can’t imagine ever being mentioned in the same breath as Clyde Edgerton, but for now, it’s inspiring enough to know what I’m aiming for looks like.

Inspiration comes in many forms, and for me, these people all provide me with the fuel I need to make life fulfilling.

Funniest family members

Humor sustains us in difficult times, and I have become profoundly appreciative when my family makes me laugh.

Upon reflection, I find my dad, father-in-law and middle brother, Lee, the funniest in my family, each in their own way. Dad has a penchant for remembering and telling stories and jokes. Lanny was a quipster who loved to poke holes in pretense. Lee has a deadpan sarcasm that catches me off guard.

Dad’s story and joke telling emerged from years of practice. Whether it was an illustration for a sermon or an icebreaker for a senior adult lunch program, Dad has developed a comic timing that makes his stories attention-grabbing and relatable.

Dad excels at the set up. I’ve been had so many times by stories that ended up being jokes that I’ve grown suspicious every time he starts his wind up. Even if I’m not fooled, I’m hooked, listening for the tell-tale signs that what I’m hearing is fiction.

“Hey, did you hear we had a sinkhole off Highway 27 this week?”

“No! Really?”

“Yeah, the police are looking into it.”

Larry Wallace in a red shirt with nautical scenes and a camo visor with built in gray and white hair standing up all over.
Dad sported this “poor man’s toupee” for comedic affect many times around friends and family, especially the grandkids.

It’s the plausibility that piques my interest. I think I’m hearing legitimate news that’s both interesting and potentially impactful to my parents and their neighbors. I’m all in until the punch line washes over me, and I realize he got me again.

He did this to my brothers and me when we were growing up so many times I’m convinced he spent each night before bed plotting how he could “pull our leg,” as my Granny described it. It took me many years to figure out that Reader’s Digest was one of his sources. We had a subscription most of the time I was at home, and he learned how to make those stories his own by changing one or two key details to fit our setting.

Even when his stories were real, they had a humor that tickled our funny bone. Whether it was his exploits in school, tricks he played on his brother, pranks from his days in the Air Force or just odd incidents during his tenure at American Airlines as a mechanic, we enjoyed his humorous stories when he got on a roll.

One of the most memorable and significant to the circumstances of my parents getting together was how my Mom broke things off with him while he was stationed in Guam with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. They had met but weren’t necessarily exclusive before he shipped out. My mom learned that he had gone out with someone else and decided to send him a not-so-subtle message to express her feelings about the development.

As Dad tells it, one day he received a package in the mail marked “Cookies.” Excited to receive some comfort food from home, he ripped into it only to discover a voodoo doll stuck full of pins. When he got home, they got together, and the rest is history. His punchline?

“Beware of care packages labeled ‘Cookies’!”

Lanny Barron passed away in 2013, but during the 16 years I knew him, he gave me plenty of opportunity to enjoy his brand of humor. By the time I met him, his hearing wasn’t good, so his participation in group conversations could be limited. But one-on-one, he could carry on a conversation easily. He loved weaving in stories and jokes, always with a wink and a smile for punctuation.

His quips were my favorite. They were always so on-the-nose that I couldn’t help but doubt they were original to him. For example, his description of his sister-in-law, who always kept up with and often contributed to the town’s informal news network: “She may not get it right, but she gets it first.”

Or, when he got to hold his grandsons for the first time, he said of all three: “He’s a handsome young man, just like his granddaddy.”

When they got older, he concluded his visits with our boys by giving them a $20 bill and the instruction to “Tell your mama and daddy to buy you some ice cream.”

Seen here holding baby Carlton in 2008, with a smile of grandfatherly pride, Lanny almost always wore a mischievous grin.

I never will forget the time he recounted to me all of the mishaps he had with his pickup trucks. We were driving out to the farm one Saturday afternoon, and in the span of 12 or 13 miles he covered the untimely demise of five or six different trucks, including one that rolled into a pond in an abandoned kaolin mine. In each story he laughed and concluded his series of tales with “I used to do some crazy things.” Lanny was never afraid to make himself the butt of his own joke.

His exploits and sense of humor was well known at the chalk plant, and he was often called by the nickname “Jelly Roll.” Our friend, Devita, grew up hearing her dad tell hilarious stories involving Jelly Roll, and she was amazed the night she learned the famous — or infamous — Jelly Roll was none other than Carla’s daddy.

My brother Lee came along three years and seven months after me, and for another six years and nine months, it was just the two of us. We fought, sure, but we were also close because of the vast amount of time we spent together playing whiffle ball and football in the front yard; basketball in the driveway or church gym; and board, video and computer games in the bedroom we shared.

It took me a long time to appreciate or even understand Lee’s sense of humor, but I distinctly remember the night I recognized it.

It was June 2001. I was working for Mercer University at the time and had to stay overnight at a hotel on Peachtree Street across from the Fox Theater. And, no, it was not the Georgian Terrace. It was the less fancy one next door. I believe it was a Days Inn at the time. I had worked an event in the Fox’s Egyptian Ballroom honoring Judge William Augustus Bootle, a Mercer graduate and judge whose ruling led to the integration of Georgia schools. 

That night Lee just so happened to be coming through town, and so he crashed in my hotel room. We caught up on each other’s lives and families before somehow shifting to reminiscence about our time at Troy University.

Lee came to Troy in January of 1993 after spending a semester at Pensacola Christian College, and I had graduated from Troy in June of 1992. We did not overlap, but there were still plenty of people on campus who knew me, including my friend, Jim Quinn, who became Lee’s friend and guide. Lee referred to him as “Super Jim,” and I had no idea about their friendship or Lee’s exploits and misadventures at Troy.

We stayed up all night as he told one story after another of how he made the adjustment from a strict, Christian college to a largely free and unencumbered state school experience. He described his first roommate, with whom he had little in common, and how the guy could not understand Lee’s constant concern about “inspections,” “lights out,” and “demerits.”

I have never laughed harder than I did that night. Hearing about his encounters with the characters I knew from my years at Troy, his exploits in the marching band, the odd occurrences on the night shift at Subway – it was all perfect fodder for good stories. It was early in the morning before we both drifted off to sleep. If laughter is the best medicine, I overdosed that night. Lee’s storytelling and matter of fact, self-deprecating humor hit me in wave after wave with each new anecdote.

Lee Wallace wears a tan blazer over a green leprechaun t-shirt holding a microphone in his right hand and a raffle ticket stub in his left as a woman in a blue top and gray hair looks on.
Almost as funny as his deadpan humor is his crowd work at church events. He’s especially good with the… em… “Keenagers.”

Even now, I have to listen close when we talk to discern his sarcasm. I get out of practice, losing my ear for it when we go too long between conversations. But no matter how long it’s been, he never fails to make me laugh at some point.

Humor is subjective, and all of the members of my family — particularly my children — have given me plenty to laugh at and about in my life. I am grateful for all of it, particularly Dad, Lanny and Lee for sharing the gift of laughter.

A random act of kindness

If you are worried about how much something costs, you shouldn’t buy it.

That’s been my philosophy for years, and I apply it most often during vacations. I don’t want to worry about how much a meal, accommodations or an activity sets me back because worry hinders my enjoyment. Why spend money on something you can’t enjoy? If the expenditure doesn’t lead to enjoyment, for me, it’s best to skip it.

That philosophy was very much on my mind back in 2008 when we decided to take the boys to Sea World with my brother and his family while visiting my parents in Florida the week after Christmas. It’s a notoriously busy time at the Orlando theme parks, but we wanted to give the boys something special and memorable during the visit. We usually work in at least one special activity during our annual visit with my family.

In the past we’ve made trips to the mall, Lakeland to shop or eat out, Cypress Gardens and then Legoland when it was converted to the new theme park, and local playgrounds. We don’t get to spend time with my family often, and a day at Sea World gave us the opportunity to spend time with Uncle Lee, Aunt Karrie, and Cousin Kalee.

Lance and Carla Wallace stand with their two young sons holding blue light sabres in front of a lighthouse at the gate to Sea World in Orlando, Florida.
With all the money we saved on tickets, we could afford to buy Barron and Harris light sabres with which to pummel each other all the way home.

Our boys had never been to Sea World. I had been numerous times, and Lee had visited even more. His love of theme parks and thrill rides exceeds mine, and his years as a church youth minister gave him many more opportunities to go to theme parks with his youth group. That year, he and his family had a season pass to Sea World. It wasn’t a financial sacrifice for them to spend the day with us at Sea World, beyond the overpriced food. For our family of five, however, we were starting from scratch, and it took a lot of money to buy single day admission tickets to Sea World. At the time, single day admission tickets were in the neighborhood of $90 a piece.

But I wasn’t going to worry about the money. I worked at the nonprofit Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at the time, and while I felt fairly compensated for my position, we weren’t exactly rolling in cash. Spending more than $500 for a single day of fun felt like a lot, but we were prepared to bite the bullet. We told ourselves it was an investment in making memories and spending quality time with family.

The front gate of Sea World is no different from any theme park I’ve visited. There are kiosks at which you purchase your passes, and then there are the gates at which you show your tickets have your bags searched and are allowed entry. Even as a kid, approaching the front gate of an amusement park created such nervous excitement I could barely contain it. One of the best parts of having a season pass at Six Flags Over Texas when I was 12 was the special pass gate I was privileged to enter. It was fast, easy and convenient, and I always felt a little bit of sympathy for the people queueing in lines at the ticket booths while I walked right in and started jumping on rides immediately.

There is nothing worse as a kid than waiting, and when you have a theme park in front of you, beckoning you to enter and experience the joys and thrills it offers, a line to buy tickets and then a separate line to enter feels like torture.

That’s where we were that day. Lee and his family zoomed through with their passes, while Carla and I stood in line at a ticket machine, choosing to bypass the lines at the booths where people were making in-person purchases. Our children were excited but being reasonably well behaved. Everything was going fine.

Then suddenly, the woman ahead of us in line turned around, smiled and spoke.

“Do you need tickets?”

Always suspicious of offers that seem too good to be true, we responded with a skeptical affirmative.

“We have three multi-day passes with a day left on them. We’re not going to be able to use them before we have to go back home. Would you like to have them?”

“Yes!”

Still, in that moment, this act of kindness felt like a trap. I worried that the tickets would be expired, non-transferable or counterfeit. The lines were getting longer behind us. If we purchased only two tickets from the machine and there was an issue with the passes over at the gate and had to return to the kiosks to buy three more tickets, we would be further delaying everyone’s enjoyment of the park.

She could tell we were dubious. She handed us the tickets to inspect. They looked legitimate. We were nearing our turn at the ticket machine. The clock was ticking. We had to make a decision. The woman looked friendly and honest. We went with our gut feelings.

“Thank you so much!” I responded. “This is great!”

She seemed relieved that the tickets would be going to someone who could use them. As she walked away, we stepped up and purchased two children’s single day passes. We crossed our fingers and approached the front gate where my brother and his family waited.

“Dude, you will never believe what just happened,” I said to him.

We showed them the tickets, and he confirmed they appeared genuine.

“Man, that kind of stuff never happens to me,” he said with a laugh. “You must be living right.”

We opened our bags for the gate employees to inspect and handed the attendant our tickets – the two new ones and three gifted ones. Without hesitation the attendant scanned all five, and each one beeped with acceptance. No issues. We were in.

As I pulled my backpack onto my shoulders I told Carla, “That woman just gave us $300.”

“That might be the most expensive gift we got this Christmas,” she responded. “And it came from a stranger.”

Even better than expected – part 4

(This is the final installment in a series about my career’s twists and turns. If you missed the previous three posts, I encourage you to go back and catch up: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Now, for the final chapter… so far:)

When I left GTRI for Institute Communications at Georgia Tech, I didn’t just move across campus. I traded a 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, schedule for being on call 24-7, nights, and weekends.

I was the Institute’s media spokesperson and the public information officer for the Georgia Tech Police Department. Tethered to a mobile phone, I was never completely off work, and I endured some of the most difficult circumstances of my career, including the night a Georgia Tech police officer shot and killed a student.

That tragedy took a toll, and invigoration turned to exhaustion. By the time ethics complaints had me on local television once a month explaining the latest violations and firings, I was ready for a change. My great boss, Associate Vice President Lisa Grovenstein, retired, and I decided my performance in the job for three years would be enough evidence that I was capable of moving up into her job.

I made it to the final two candidates before losing out to a highly qualified external candidate. I was disappointed but not crushed, and I was staying busy serving as the chief intermediary between Georgia Tech and the University System of Georgia’s communications team. The USG lined up the television interviews, coached me on speaking points, and relied on me to carry the message they wanted delivered. There were times I felt like a double agent, trying to carry the message of Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson as well as the University System’s talking points. Then my own department at Georgia Tech was embroiled in a transition when our vice president was let go.

Lance Wallace appears on WSB-TV as a Georgia Tech spokesperson.
Friends would joyfully proclaim they saw me on TV. My response was always the same: “If I’m on TV, it’s a bad day.”

I was asked to attend the August Board of Regents meeting to facilitate media interactions for President Peterson. I showed up at 8 a.m. to meet with Charlie Sutlive, the USG’s vice chancellor of communications at the time. Instead of going over the details of the day, Charlie informed me he was leaving his job at the end of the week, and he wanted me to serve as the interim in his place. I would be on loan from Georgia Tech, and it would be a great opportunity to gain visibility with the USG leadership before his replacement, the out-going governor’s communications director, Jen Ryan, could return from maternity leave and take over the job on a permanent basis.

I had been deep in conversation with NCR about a position to serve as a university relations representative, building a program for the Atlanta-based financial technology company to interface with the institutions in the state. I decided to withdraw from that process and pursue the interim at the USG. President Peterson was understanding and glad for me to have the opportunity to look out for Georgia Tech from the USG headquarters. Dene Sheheane, Georgia Tech’s vice president for government relations, was put in charge of Institute Communications, and he blessed the arrangement as well, serving as a confidant and mentor throughout my tenure downtown.

It was an insightful experience, which I found challenging and exciting. Other than having to carry three mobile phones – one for USG, one for Georgia Tech, and my personal phone, I enjoyed it. Consulting with 26 institutions instead of just one was dizzying but enriching.

The four months flew by. Jen and I were originally scheduled to overlap the first week of November, but when she arrived, the decision was made to keep me on until the end of the calendar year. Those additional two months made Jen’s transition smoother and helped me land back at Tech with a new job on top of my old director of media relations position – interim associate vice president for creative strategy and brand management. 

I took on management duties for half of the Institute Communications operation and began interfacing with a new team of direct reports. I also applied for the vacant vice president of Institute Communications position, and although I felt like it was premature for me to ascend to that position, particularly after not getting the AVP job, it was an opportunity from which I knew I would learn and grow.

Winter and spring 2019 were difficult as I juggled the responsibilities at Georgia Tech, continued interfacing with the USG and went through interviews, presentations and project proposal drafts as a part of the VP search process. I was also able to participate in the USG’s Executive Leadership Institute, further allowing me to grow as a leader. 

But when the dust settled in the spring, I did not get the VP job, and I was feeling more and more burned out by the amount of work I was producing and the feeling that my profession was dominating my life. Jen Ryan kept in touch throughout my Georgia Tech VP candidacy, and when that fell through, she reached out and asked if I would be willing to come back to the USG as the associate vice chancellor for communications.

I needed a break from Tech, and working as the no. 2 to Jen seemed promising, particularly since she indicated she had a clear exit strategy she was planning over the next two years. I came back to the USG in August 2019, feeling relieved of the burden of 24-7 on-call work for Georgia Tech and its myriad, daily crises.

Jen announced her departure ahead of schedule, and I was not tapped to become the vice chancellor. Former WSB-TV investigative reporter Aaron Diamant, one of the people I had recently stood in front of cameras for explaining a Georgia Tech cybersecurity breach. I liked Aaron, but I was disappointed that my plans were not working out.

The full scale of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became known in late winter, and I started working from home exclusively in mid-March. Not commuting two-plus hours a day gave me back time, and I began to write again for fun.

Lance Wallace wearing a suit and tie talks on a video about mental health for the University System of Georgia.
I’ve been told I have a face for radio. If I had possessed more foresight, I would have taken broadcast journalism classes back at Troy.

I re-launched this blog, and blew the dust off my novel manuscript, which I had set aside in 2012 after attempting a rewrite. In May, Carla gave me the StoryWorth online weekly memoir, and I began to carve out time each day to write. For nine months, I worked on my novel, wrote a series for the Reflections devotional book, wrote monthly View from the Pew and New South Essays blog posts and crafted responses to the StoryWorth weekly writing prompts. The time was a gift, and the opportunity to write reconnected me with the dream I had as a 7th grader writing short stories.

One month ago this week I accepted the position of vice president of marketing and communications at Oglethorpe University, leaving the USG after three years as associate vice chancellor. Joining the team at Oglethorpe, meeting new people, working on communications plans and engaging in pro-active media relations has been fun. And who wouldn’t want to go to work at Hogwarts. In fact, I learned this week that a former president from long ago in Oglethorpe’s history called the Gothic architecture on the Brookhaven campus “the silent faculty.”

Lance Wallace in a coat and tie and sunglasses stands in front of the Lupton Administration Building on the Oglethorpe University Campus with the sun peaking over the rooftop.
It’s all sunshine and smiles as I start a new adventure at Oglethorpe University, which has a distinct architectural look on its 100-acre campus in Brookhaven.

My career path has been winding, but so has everyone’s in the communications world as the analog era shifted into the digital age and communication became nonstop and ubiquitous. After 30 years of writing, editing, crafting stories and engaging with the media and the public, I don’t know what the future holds, but I am thankful for the experiences, the people and the successes along the way. I’m filled with gratitude and eager to make an impact, ready to embrace the next chapter.

Thanks for sticking with this winding story over these four posts, and if you missed one, feel free to revisit them. I appreciate you reading!

What’s in a name, part 2

Our youngest child is named “Carlton Fulghum Wallace.”

Naming our third born was the toughest. Unlike with our second-born, Harris, we were able to find out he would be a boy at 20 weeks into the pregnancy. We considered the family names still available to us that we liked, and we kept returning to “John,” Carla’s father’s brother, and “Carl,” an obvious connection to “Carla” and her father, “Lanny Carl.”

Newborn baby Carlton in a dressing gown
Fourteen years ago this little bundle of joy came into our lives completing our family. Carlton is still a “bundle of joy” but it’s a considerably larger bundle.

For a while it looked like we would go with “John Carlton Wallace,” but we had a friend in the neighborhood named “John” with the last name “Carlton.” The coincidence was too weird for us to seriously commit to that name. We didn’t want friends who knew us both to keep asking him and us about any connections. (For the record, John Carlton is a standup guy who we really like!)

Carla’s mother always had a close relationship with her Granny Fulghum. Mama credits her with keeping her alive when she was born prematurely, and their bond was strong throughout Granny Fulghum’s life. Although “Fulghum” is an unusual name, we wanted to honor Carla’s mother’s connection to her grandmother without subjecting our child to a lifetime of ridicule. Using “Fulghum” as the middle name seemed like the best solution.

That left us with the first name to puzzle over for the remainder of the pregnancy and even after his birth. The morning he arrived, our indecision left him officially nameless for several hours. It was a strange afternoon of our parents asking us what we were going to call him while we couldn’t decide among “John,” “Carl,” and “Carlton.” It was Carla’s daddy who gave us the space to settle on a name.

“Whatever you call him, it won’t take long before that will be his name, and you can’t imagine calling him anything else.”

Lanny was right, and Carlton has been as unique as his family-derived name. At first he didn’t like that people made the association with “Carlton the Doorman” from the TV show “Rhoda” or Will Smith’s cousin on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” He eventually embraced Carlton’s signature dance move from that show, appropriately called “The Carlton” as a way to cope with the frequent comparison. If you watched his latest performance as the genie in “Aladdin” at Smoke Rise Academy of Arts, you may have even seen “The Carlton” sneak into his choreography.

Now that he’s turning 14, Carlton is figuring out how to use his considerable creative gifts. Whatever he chooses to do, he embodies the name so fully that all the other Carltons take a backseat to him. He’s charting his own course.

And who knows, maybe a dance will be called “The Carlton” as a tribute to him.

Even better than expected – part 3

Note: This is the third in a series on the unexpected twists and turns of my career. If you didn’t see part 1, go back now and catch up on part one and part two.

Transitions are never easy, especially when you believe you are following a calling.

When I interviewed with CBF, then national Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal warned me that working at a faith-based organization can cause you to lose your faith. I don’t think I lost my faith, but the economic recession of 2007-2008 certainly tested it.

As giving to churches dropped, the funding from churches to CBF fell even more precipitously. In response, the CBF leadership was forced to lay off 13 employees, several of whom I was close to. In addition to financial difficulties, CBF faced a leadership transition. Daniel Vestal was retiring, and after 10 years on staff, I felt like Daniel’s transition was the right time to test the job market. I decided my resume and experience matched up best for internal communications and media relations jobs in the non-profit or higher education sectors. I began applying for jobs in April 2012 but didn’t get many bites.

While working in the newsroom of the CBF General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, that summer, I received a call from an Atlanta area code. Convinced it was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s religion writer working on a story about the Assembly, I took the call only to discover it was the administrative assistant for the vice president of communications and marketing at the Georgia Institute of Technology wanting to schedule an interview. I had applied for the director of communications and marketing position at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) but hadn’t heard anything for several months. Grateful for a call-back of any kind, I put the time and date on my mobile phone’s calendar and returned to the pressing matters at hand. After the Assembly, I did my homework on GTRI and decided it was a much larger, more respected and more profitable version of the applied engineering research center at Mercer University for which I handled the public relations as a part of my School of Engineering duties.

Lance Wallace wearing a navy blazer white shirt and orange tie with Georgia Tech Research Institute on the wall in the background.
When one of the lab directors at GTRI first met me, he sized me up and said, “Well, you’re clean cut.”

When the day came for my interview, I was on a conference call for a CBF project about an hour before my interview. That same 404-area code phone number popped up on my cell phone, and I knew I had to answer. I begged off the conference call, thinking it was the administrative assistant just confirming the details of the phone interview. I called the number back only to learn I was 15-minutes late for the actual interview.

Back when I put the appointment on the calendar through my cell phone, I was in the central time zone. When I came back east to Georgia, my cell phone automatically shifted the appointment back an hour. Frazzled and confused, I did my best to talk my way into the interview even though I was late. It took me about 10 minutes to slow my heart rate and get into the flow of the interview, but fortunately I had scripted my answers to the first few obvious interview questions. From there, we had a great back-and-forth with my natural curiosity driving my interaction with the committee. Whether or not my time zone mishap had blown it, I felt good about my performance and left the results up to God.

Returning to higher education seemed natural, but joining the staff of one of the top ranked public institutions in the country was intimidating. I was invited for in-person interviews and spent 90 minutes being grilled by a 10-person committee. Rather than frightening, I found the experience invigorating. I enjoyed the engaging questions and again let my curiosity into their processes drive my questioning.

Poster with my headhshot and blue and white gears with the heading "Welcome to GTRI Communications" Lance Wallace Director of Communications
I received a warm welcome at GTRI, including posters in the elevators.

The co-chair of the search committee, GTRI’s chief of staff at the time, Tom Horton, (may he rest in peace), addressed the elephant in the room right away, much to the dismay of the human resources representative. He wanted to know how my work for Baptists could translate into working with engineers and researchers. I deflected with humor and focused on the work I had accomplished in media relations, publications, web development projects, fundraising campaigns, and advocacy marketing. I walked away from the interview feeling I had made a connection with the members of the committee and given good answers to their questions. I was sure I would be invited back for the final round.

That invitation came during our family beach vacation less than a week after my in-person interview. They scheduled me for a full day at Georgia Tech. I met with GTRI’s director and deputy director and held up under an hour of grilling from two obviously brilliant scientists. When it was over, they took me down the hall to Tom’s office where I had a few minutes to catch my breath before heading to Institute Communications for my interviews with their leadership. Tom asked if I knew where I was in the process. I told him I thought I was a finalist and today was my “make-or-break opportunity.” He took all the pressure off when he said, “No, you are THE finalist.” He explained the committee’s scoring process and that I was the leading candidate. Reassured by Tom’s revelation, I had a good day interacting with the staff at Georgia Tech.

I spent three years in that role at GTRI and relished learning a completely different domain. I had to fight feelings of imposter syndrome that constantly reminded me I didn’t have technical training. Despite my lack of engineering savvy, I tried to keep in mind that I was hired because they thought I was competent and could help them with their communications. Another challenge was managing the staff. There were personnel issues, and I had to learn to navigate those conflicts. GTRI’s leadership wanted to centralize communications, so my staff expanded from eight to 20. Tom, who was a great boss, retired, and one of the lab directors, Jim McGarrah, was hired as chief-of-staff. A Georgia Tech and Annapolis-trained Navy engineer, Jim was a former admiral and AT&T executive who brought a world of experience to the job. His heart was in the right place, he had the highest ethical standards, and he was a person of faith. I enjoyed our one-on-one interactions. 

When GTRI’s director left and a change of leadership was on the horizon three years into my tenure, the director of media relations in the central communications office for all of Georgia Tech became available when my friend and trusted colleague, Matt Nagel, left to take a job at New York University. I wanted to be more directly involved with the Institute’s president and senior leadership, providing communications counsel and handling more complex issues.

In what had to be an incredible difficult decision by then Associate Vice President Lisa Grovenstein, I was selected for the position over an internal and much-beloved candidate. That candidate, Jason Maderer, would turn out to be one of the best and most supportive team members of my career, and he could not have handled the situation with more class and dedication to the work.

But unbeknownst to me, I was taking on what would turn out to be one of the most challenging and stressful jobs of my career.