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‘I gave it all I had’: Sallie Pearson retires at the VA, closing 55-year career with federal government

GRANITE QUARRY — During her long career at the Hefner VA Medical Center, Sallie C. Pearson found it was always easy going to work, especially when she thought of the big picture.

“I looked at it this way,” she says, “I’m working for God, not you. He gave me my strength, he gave me my breath, everything.”

At the end of 2017, Pearson closed the curtain on her almost 46 years with the VA hospital and 55 years of service overall with the federal government. She had positions earlier with the CIA in Washington, D.C., including time at the Pentagon, and with the U.S. Customs office in New York.

Still working full-time at 84, Pearson ended her VA hospital career in patient effects. In that department, stationed on the ground floor of Building 2, she was responsible for gathering, coding, storing and returning the personal belongings of veterans receiving treatment at the VA Medical Center.

“I gave it all I had,” Pearson says.

She also worked many years in the housekeeping department at the medical center. VA officials and many of her friends at the medical center held a special retirement reception for Pearson this past Wednesday.

“It was an honor,” Pearson says. “Anything anybody does for you is an honor.”

Daughter Jessica Pearson-Jackson provides these dates for her mother’s work career: A classified position with the CIA from 1962-66; a job with the Customs office in New York from 1966-71; a short stint at the federal courthouse in Greensboro in 1971; then the housekeeping and patient effects jobs with the VA in Salisbury, starting that same year.

Having grown up in Granite Quarry, Pearson wrote a successful hardship letter back in 1971 describing her reasons for wanting to return to Rowan County to be with her children.

Pearson had never worked at a hospital before, but she says she knew how the federal government worked when things required change.

In housekeeping, Person told her bosses that she and other workers needed gloves, goggles and masks to protect themselves during their cleaning tasks. It became standard practice, but it wasn’t easy at first.

“When I spoke up, they really did give me a hard time,” Pearson says. “… But I knew how to go up the chain of command. When you go to a doctor and the doctor isn’t helping you, you go to another doctor. That’s one door I opened. They called me crazy though.”

Pearson says she kept her rooms as clean as she could for the veterans, and she came to be known as a housekeeper who left daffodils in every room.

“To make them feel they were at home and not a hospital,” Pearson says. “The way I would wish to be treated. That was respecting them. It made them feel something different.”

Pearson grew up with six other siblings. She graduated from Dunbar High School in East Spencer in 1951. Her father worked in the quarries around Granite Quarry and for Howard Brown.

Staying with aunts, Sallie worked briefly at a hotel in Albany, N.Y. “I didn’t particularly like the hotel. I tried several jobs, but I didn’t want to work in the laundry, and it was just cold up there.”

She also stayed with relatives on her mother’s side in Philadelphia. Back in North Carolina, she says she applied for a job at Oestreicher’s store in Salisbury but ended up being hired as the family’s maid.

“I took care of the house and children,” Pearson says. When Bert Oesreicher and neighbor Suzanne Blackmer attended a movie at times, Pearson adds, she also would keep an eye on the Blackmer boys.

Pearson recalls going to Myrtle Beach one summer with the Oestreichers and the Wallaces, among other families. The beaches were segregated at the time, and on their day off, Pearson and other servants traveled to Atlantic Beach.

Family connections she made on that trip led to Pearson’s going to work for a family in Staunton, Va. In Staunton, she met her first husband, William Brewer, and Sallie ended up moving with him to Washington, D.C.

Students she met while serving food and working at a place called Harnett Hall encouraged her to apply for a federal government job. Pearson followed their advice and says it took seven months for the CIA to check with all the places she had ever worked before she was cleared for a position.

Meanwhile, she also helped with her husband’s family’s catering business.

Sallie’s marriage didn’t last, leading her to transfer to the customs job in New York. Over time, her young daughter Jessica was struggling with allergies, and she eventually went to live with Sallie’s parents in Rowan County.

“That’s when I wanted to be near Jessica,” Sallie says. “I knew she couldn’t be in New York.”

Sallie married her second husband, Jesse Pearson, and the rest you know.

“I got to have people I can obtain knowledge from,” Sallie says of how she educated herself through the years. ” … I met a lot of people who shared with me, and I learned from them. I had to survive.”

Altogether, Sallie has three children, Donnie, Jan and Jessica. She also has 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Her grandson Donnie Charleston Jr. will be the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce’s guest speaker at next Thursday’s Power in Partnership breakfast at Trinity Oaks.

Pearson wishes people would communicate better with each other.

“I just fear people have lost their touch — if they could just see someone smiling or hear a kind word, have a human touch,” Pearson says. “That’s why people are so mean. They don’t have any feeling. They don’t have a human touch, everything is automatic.”

How does Pearson think she will adapt to retirement? She likes people and will miss the daily interactions she had at the VA.

But Sallie has family, church and a group of friends with whom she likes to travel. “That’ll keep me going,” she says.

And any advice for young people starting out on their own careers?

“God gives you simple things, so he wants you to do the best,” Sallie says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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