A few weeks ago, I reported the sad story of Elizabeth Wilhoit, who had lost her son to a repeat DUI offender. When asked what she would like to say to the man who is charged with killing her son, she said, “You might as well have killed me too.” My conversation with her was heartbreaking, and I couldn’t help but think of her after a similar tragedy that occurred last week.
The circumstances were different, but the results are the same. A drunk driver took the life of a good person, in this case a wife, mother and grandmother. At the age of 65, Jo Anna Hickman was still active, and very much involved in the lives of family, friends and strangers.
A north Georgia native, Jo Anna Patrick graduated from Lakeview High in 1967, and soon married the love of her life, Johnny Hickman. In 1971, they moved to Milledgeville, Georgia before returning to Catoosa County with their two children, Chad and Shannon in the 1992. Since 1997, the Hickmans lived in Augusta, where Jo Anna was the go-to lady at Lumpkin Road Baptist Church.
You know what I mean: she was the secretary, nursery director, and the grandparents leader. She organized the meals for the gatherings and the funerals. She sang in the choir, did the financial reports, and visited the shut-ins. She kept in touch with missionaries all over the world, writing them notes of encouragement. “It wasn’t enough for her to just talk on the phone, or do a personal visit,” her daughter Shannon Smith told me. “She always followed up with a handwritten card. She knew people loved getting something in the mail.”
In a horrible twist of fate, that kindness played a role in her death. Last Thursday she and Johnny set out for a much-anticipated trip back home to Catoosa County. Their oldest grandchild Jacob would graduate from Heritage High School on Saturday morning. Johnny and Jo Anna decided to make a weekend of it, so they spent the first night at Shannon’s house in Calhoun, planning later to join son Chad’s family (including Jacob) in Ringgold for the graduation festivities.
Just before noon Friday, with daughter Shannon away at work, Jo Anna was following up on her visits with sick friends the day before. As was her custom, she had written some “thinking of you” notes to drop in the mail. She took the envelopes to the mailbox, and suddenly a car left the highway, striking her. The car kept going, hitting other mailboxes and veering into a yard before finally crashing into a tree.
Jo Anna was seriously injured, but there seemed to be some hope. Life Force airlifted her to Erlanger in Chattanooga. She died from her injuries just moments later.
When I heard about the circumstances of her death, I wondered the same thing you did, I’ll bet. “Was the DUI driver a repeat offender?” To no one’s surprise, the answer is…yes.
50-year-old Wanda Hogan of Calhoun was driving that out-of-control car. Almost two years ago, on August 4, 2012, she was arrested near her home in Gordon County for DUI and child endangerment. Now she is charged with 1st degree vehicular homicide, along with DUI and leaving the scene, in the death of Jo Anna Hickman.
Jo Anna’s daughter Shannon said, “A drunk driver has destroyed my life, my brother’s life, and my father’s life. But she also took the life of a woman who had friends all over the world. There were missionaries in Australia, and other countries, and they loved her. She was their lifeline.”
The day after Jo Anna’s death, the family went to Jacob’s graduation. They were still in shock. “But she wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Shannon said. “This was Jacob’s day, and she wanted to honor him, so that’s what we did.”
In the meantime, Wanda Hogan is in the Gordon County Jail. “I will be in court every time she is,” Shannon said. “I want her to look at us, and I want her to know that she took not just my mother, but a friend to people all over the world.” She quickly adds, “Mom would ask us and everyone else to pray for that woman’s soul, and we will, I understand that. But she needs to spend the rest of her life in prison. She’s had a second chance, maybe more than that, and she doesn’t need to do this to anybody else.”
Jo Anna Hickman’s funeral will be held Thursday at 11:00 at Lane Funeral Home’s South Crest Chapel. So far, there are two bus loads of church members coming up from Augusta, along with her lifelong friends from Catoosa County. When her husband returns to Augusta, the Hickmans’ church family will be waiting. “They’re holding a special memorial service for her down there,” Shannon said. “I know they will surround Daddy with love.”
Shannon Smith and her family are asking the same questions other victims have asked: “Why was a repeat DUI offender behind the wheel, endangering innocent people?” “Why haven’t we, as a society, come up with a way to prevent drunks from driving cars, without blowing into a Breathalyzer to ensure their sobriety?”
As always, there are more questions than answers. All we know for sure is, another family is hurting. Much like Elizabeth Wilhoit, their lives will never be the same. The rock of a family, a community, and a church has been silenced. Thankfully her good spirit lives on through her children and grandchildren.
But for now, we mourn the loss of one with a strong moral compass, taken from us by someone spiraling out of control. We let this happen far too often.