As a 17-year-old boy, Eric Watson was living in the projects of Charleston, helping raise his brother and sister while his mother struggled to make ends meet. The cards were stacked against him in a world where opportunities were scarce.
"In the projects, you're perceived as being anyone but a good citizen," he said.
The stigma attached to his life as an inner-city black teen became painfully apparent to Watson and led to some confrontations with city police. Watson still recalls the moment when he realized life had to be different after one particular run-in with police near his Washington Street home.
"I won't get into too many details, but it involved me and my friends playing basketball, and there was an officer I feel almost crossed the line," Watson said. "You feel powerless. You feel like nothing. That moment made me realize there's more to life than hanging out on the corner."
Watson, 43, refused to be defined by the influences around him and went on to graduate high school, join the military and rise in the ranks of the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, where he remains today.
A Charleston native, Watson grew up living in Ansonborough Homes at 18A Washington St. The projects, once located near the present-day South Carolina Aquarium, no longer stand. They were torn down after Hurricane Hugo. The lessons learned within those walls, however, still resonate today for Watson.
Watson's mother cleaned hotel rooms and earned about $5,000 a year. So at 15 years old, when Watson wanted a new pair of sneakers, his mom taught him the value of hard work.
"My mom was a strong woman," he said. "She said, 'Boy, you think money grows on trees?' "
That led Watson to his first job at Swensen's Grill and Ice Cream, where he worked weekends throughout his high school years while he attended Burke, where he was even voted Mr. Senior.
After graduating high school, he attended Fort Valley State College in Georgia, but the expenses became too much, so he left college and did what so many others in his family had already done: joined the military.
Earning a badge
Watson enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves in 1991 and worked in the transportation terminal unit, which deals with logistics and the transport of cargo as well as port security.
Not long after enlistment, Watson was deployed to Iraq to fight in the Persian Gulf War, where he spent six months.
"It was an experience," Watson said. "It really made me realize how blessed we are in this country. The things we take for granted, they cherish over there."
After serving 15 years in the reserves, Watson returned to school. He was adamant about getting his degree. While attending classes, he got his first job with the Charleston County Sheriff's Office as a jail corrections officer.
With a steady pace, Watson worked his way up through the ranks as a patrol deputy to a detective in the criminal investigation division. He was promoted to sergeant, became a patrol supervisor, oversaw court security, worked in internal affairs and then returned to the investigative unit as a lieutenant in 2008.
"I believe you need to be well rounded," he said. "I'm always looking to advance. That's how I was raised, setting goals for myself."
In 2013, Watson was promoted to major, and after 10 years of working on investigations, his role shifted as he became the new public information officer.
It was a challenging adjustment for the man who had previously poured himself into his investigations of murders and robberies.
Watson, instead, was briefing the media and updating social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to better share information about crimes with the public.
"It's stressful and can be more intense," Watson said.
It's no easy task and one that keeps Watson busy and connected to his cell phone, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
During a recent interview with The Post and Courier, while sitting at his desk, Watson's cell phone remained nearby at all times.
"I may have to interrupt this interview to take a call from Channel 2," he said.
A box of Honey Nut Cheerios leaned against his computer for an easy-to-reach snack for the man who spends his days at the scenes of crimes, taking phone calls from reporters, attending Charleston County council meetings and being the occasional stand-in for Sheriff Al Cannon.
Deputy Chief John Clark, who previously held the position of public information officer, commended Watson for his dedication and hard work in his new position.
"One of the things he has to remember is that there is only one of him and a hundred reporters," Clark said.
Cannon said he also admires Watson's dependability, creativity and understanding of the office's goals and challenges.
"I came to recognize he was a very bright and articulate person and had a mature thought process and I was really impressed with the quality of work he was doing," Cannon said.
Both Clark and Cannon said they were even more impressed with Watson's success after finding out about the circumstances of his upbringing.
"He's an excellent example to the community," Clark said. "Because if he can do it, anybody can do it. If you are motivated, like Watson, you can succeed."
"Eric is someone who has not let whatever shortcomings or unfortunate circumstances that he grew up in affect his recognition that in order to succeed, you have to be willing to work," Cannon said.
"He certainly has not let that stop him from getting out and doing his best."
Watson, who is married and has a 10-year-old son, said he has been frustrated when troubled teens he's arrested use their circumstances as an excuse.
"If you wait for opportunities to show up at your door, you'll be waiting your entire life," he said.
He acknowledges there were plenty of influences growing up that could have dragged him into a life of crime. With a strong mother who instilled a work ethic and morals, it was never even a consideration.
"A few of my friends took that approach," he said. "I wanted more out of life."
Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.
Charleston County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Major Eric Watson speaks to the media during the latest search for Gayle McCaffrey.×
Eric Watson graduated from Burke High School in 1989.×
Eric Watson was in high school when this photo was taken during a Burke High football game. (Provided)×