Saved by Grace




photo by natalie haywood

photo by natalie haywood

Jan Wilkinson is retired now, and her life could be described as fairly quiet. She volunteers in the surgery waiting room at Wadley one day a week and enjoys spending time with her family and giving back to her community. By all accounts, she lives a relaxed life. Thirty-four years ago, that was not exactly the case.

Jan was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and moved to Texarkana with her family when she was in the first grade. Her father bought an automotive parts business in town and the family moved to Wamba, northwest of town off Richmond Road. Jan began working part-time at Mayo Manufacturing her senior year of high school at Texas High, and at 20, struck out on her own to live in Houston with a girlfriend. “I wanted to get out on my own, and we did just that. I was married at 22, we moved to Corpus Christi for a year, and then moved back to Texarkana right before my son was born in 1976,” she said.

Jan and her then-husband bought a home just across the street from her parents in Pleasant Grove on Timberwilde Street. In 1980, Jan gave birth to her daughter, but by 1984 she had started noticing issues in her marriage, and having concerns about her husband. The two were in the process of getting a divorce when Jan experienced a more traumatic moment than many of us can imagine on August 1, 1984.

“He had come over to the house the night before to get some papers he needed for work,” Jan said. “We were going through a divorce, but I really thought it was as amicable as it could be. He still had a key to the house because his things were still there, but if I locked the glass door and put the garage door down, he couldn’t get in. Every night before bed I locked everything up, but earlier in the day, he must have unlocked the outside door so he would be able to get back in. I figured out later he’d been planning this for awhile.”

Jan gives a lot of credit to RN Gwen Nixon for being a calming presence for her while she was in recovery. (Photo by Natalie Haywood)

Jan gives a lot of credit to RN Gwen Nixon for being a calming presence for her while she was in recovery. (Photo by Natalie Haywood)

Jan tucked her two young children in bed, just as she did every night, and was startled when she heard a noise in the dark in the wee hours of the morning. “I thought it was one of the kids, so I just rolled over and lifted the blankets to let them in my bed, but then I heard the click of the gun cocking, and I froze,” she said.

Jan describes the events that ensued in detail, as if they occurred yesterday instead of 34 years ago. There was a struggle, and her then-husband ended up shooting her 14 times in front of the couple’s two children, then 7 and 3 years old. He sat down and smoked a cigarette while she writhed on the kitchen floor before calling the sheriff’s office and requesting assistance. He told authorities it was an accidental shooting. Fortunately, no one believed him.

Miraculously, Jan lived. “Dr. Tompkins was the surgeon on-call at Wadley that night, and he happened to be at the hospital when I made it in. I was told several times after the fact that if it had been anyone other than him, I wouldn’t have made it. He saved my life. The paramedics and EMTs, and nurses, and everyone else who played a part in taking care of me that day and in the days after absolutely saved my life,” she said. “After the attack, during my recovery, the entire community really rallied around me. I wasn’t anyone famous, but I had so many people reaching out. I never knew how many people I knew until this happened, and then I had so many cards, and calls, and visitors that it was really mind-blowing. Texarkana is the kind of place that really steps up when we have people in need.”

Jan spent the next five and a half weeks in the hospital, all but four days of it in intensive care. She had a total of five surgeries over the next couple of years, and it took months to get back to a new sense of normal.

Jan looks back on her recovery feeling blessed to have her life spared. “The EMT that took me to the hospital called ICU a few days after the attack and had to come see me himself. He couldn’t believe I had actually survived. Four or five preachers came to see me in ICU, and I thought I must have really been in serious shape for so many preachers to come. I realized later how peaceful I felt throughout the entire event,” Jan said. “I truly believe that I was saved by the grace of God and that immediately gives you peace even through pain. Oddly enough, I never thought I was going to die once the ambulance arrived.”

Even so, getting her life back was not an easy process.

Jan and JR this past Thanksgiving in Seaside, Florida.

Jan and JR this past Thanksgiving in Seaside, Florida.

Jan had to live through the nightmare again when the trial began in the spring of 1985, and then again during the divorce proceedings, in which her ex-husband had requested a jury to decide custody and details of the divorce. In the criminal trial, Jan’s young son, who witnessed the events, was able to give a deposition to authorities that helped the case. The sheriff ’s office provided around the clock protection for Jan and her family during the trial after a threat was made from the jail to attempt to harm her again.

“A sheriff’s deputy would drop the kids off at school, and take me to work. A deputy even went with me to register my daughter for kindergarten that year,” Jan recalls. “Apparently the assignment was highly sought after at the sheriff ’s office because my mom cooked for everyone assigned to our house. I was never used to that kind of attention, so it was really life-changing for me.”

The trial concluded on Wednesday, May 15, 1985, when a Bowie County jury rejected an insanity defense and convicted Jan’s ex-husband of attempted murder. They sentenced him to the maximum sentence of 20 years.

This past November, Jan (right) and her friends, Nanette Pope, Debbie Stroupe, Pam Hicks, Sylvia Jacobs, Judy Jones, Sherry Richardson, and Sharon Shipp, gathered together to celebrate Judy’s birthday.

This past November, Jan (right) and her friends, Nanette Pope, Debbie Stroupe, Pam Hicks, Sylvia Jacobs, Judy Jones, Sherry Richardson, and Sharon Shipp, gathered together to celebrate Judy’s birthday.

“I felt relief after he was convicted,” Jan said. “You never think something like this could happen to you, but I was glad they didn’t fall for his lies.”

Jan worked hard to regain her life back in the days, months, and years to come. “It sounds easy to recover, start a new life, and end up happily ever after,” Jan said. “But it was never easy. Adjusting to being a single parent, and starting over, basically, was very hard, but my children kept me going. I knew I had to be there for them. There were days I probably would have stayed in bed otherwise, but eventually I learned to get back where I needed to be.”

Jan married JR Wilkinson in 1988 and credits friends that encouraged her to get out for introducing them. She went back to work at a very supportive Mayo Manufacturing, where she worked a total of 32 years and retired at 59 1⁄2.

“I’d been retired about five years when I decided I’d like something to do one day a week to have a more structured schedule,” Jan said. “My husband suggested I volunteer, and I immediately thought of the hospital. I’ve been there ever since. I really enjoy being there for people in their scariest moments.”

Jan’s story is nothing short of amazing. Her tenacity to survive, and her willingness to rebuild is inspiring. More than that, what she is now giving back to the people and facility that gave so much to her is what makes a community like Texarkana and the people here so special.