On her first day on the job in 1978 as a 23-year-old black female parole officer, Vicki Hallman confronted a suspicious, potentially threatening all-white group in a Seagoville parking lot and turned their hostility to laughter. When she later made visits to check out parolees in that complex, she was greeted with cookies.

Thirty years later, Hallman’s charm—call it an imposing personal magnetism—has propelled her to the post of regional director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “I always strove to be my best, but some of my early experiences of being the first woman or the first African-American to reach this or that level made it easier for me to understand people who have something to overcome.”

The Hillcrest High School graduate supervises more than 22,000 parolees and a staff of more than 500 agency employees spread across 13 district offices. It’s a job one doesn’t attain or succeed at without a core of toughness, but her empathy has led her to devote much of her time to helping her charges cope with the outside world through programs of education, social adjustment, and job training. “If we can help them find the reasons and means to succeed on the outside, they won’t be going back in, and this is happening more and more.”

Hallman, though, isn’t ready to transition to a new life. “Now I have my time in to where I could retire, but I’m not quite ready for that,” she says. “Things are just getting interesting.”