I’m not sure how many words it will take to fully tell the legacies my father passed down to his children, his grandchildren, and his great-children. Though he died at the age of 56, he crammed a lot of living into that time. Daddy was a dreamer, a visionary, a truth-seeker, a believer, a jokester, a leader, a speaker, and a preacher. He worked in a number of different small businesses to supplement the meager salary of a preacher of small churches. Many of his churches were in their early stages of growth; I remember going to church in a school gym, an American Legion hall, a house, even tents. These churches were nearly always the only Church of Christ in town. Some of the churches were supported by larger churches, essentially mission points. I remember times when Daddy’s office was in our house, complete with a mimeograph machine where he wrote, typed, and printed the church bulletin. I can remember him as a partner in a printing company, the manager and lifeguard of neighborhood pool, farming, a partner in an ambulance company, a principal of small Christian school, a deputy sheriff, a juvenile court officer, and a radio reporter. He had a deep voice that many people loved to hear, and whenever possible, he used that voice to preach on the radio.
Sense of Humor
Daddy loved to play practical jokes on people; I have a vivid memory of a joke he played on Mama when I was about 8 years old. We lived in Detroit at the time, and Mama worked the night shift at a factory to supplement their income. Daddy’s hair was long and black, slicked back in the style of the 40s and early 50s.
One of the church members was a barber and cut hair in his basement. Daddy had to take the three of us with him one night to get his hair cut since Mama was at work. The flattop haircut had come into style in the mid-1950s, and Daddy decided he wanted his long hair cut in the new style. I can remember watching his hair fall to the floor and thinking, “What is Mama going to say?” Somehow I knew it was a going to be a big deal to her, but Daddy had a plan. He wrote Mama a letter and laid it on her pillow that night when he went to bed. We were all asleep when she came home after her shift. This is the letter she found:
My Dearest Darling:
There comes a time in a man’s life when he feels impelled to live dangerously. Tonight was my night. I did something that I have wanted to for 10 years, but the position and prestige I had to maintain would not let me, plus the fact that my wife might not approve. Even though you have never forbade me to do this hideous thing I felt there would be displeasure on your behalf if I did so. On top of this my children watched me do it. To make this thing even worse, one of the elders of the church participated with me.
I sincerely hope that in the goodness of your heart you will find room to forgive me of wrongdoing you. I know you can, for you have for so many years. I could never think of the future if you don’t.
Imagine my father lying on his side of the bed with his back to Mama, trying to not laugh as she read this letter. Remember, this took place in during the conservative 1950s; the letter was obviously written to make her think the worst (which I didn’t fully understand at the time). She immediately woke him up to see the transformation in this picture. It was a huge surprise, but I’m sure it was more a relief to her. For the rest of his life, Daddy maintained that same hairstyle – no matter the long hair, blow-dried, permed, or polished trends of the day.
Value of Education
Despite our parents’ lack of a college degree, there was never any doubt in our family how important education was. Report card time made me nervous if I made anything below a B or had one of those checks like “Needs Improvement”. Luckily, I was a good student, but I did like to talk. We always had Conduct grades in elementary school, and there were times when I did not do so well in that subject. That always meant Daddy would deliver one of those “talking-to’s” or lectures such as, “There’s no reason to not make an A (or Satisfactory) in Conduct. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut!” You know, I still have that problem sometimes!
Daddy also took special interest when we had to give a speech in school. Since he had years of experience in talking in front of others, we got plenty of advice on the subject. I can remember giving some of my speeches to Daddy for his approval. He was always so proud of his grown children who easily stood in front of a crowd in church, Bible class, community groups, clubs, workshops, classrooms, and student bodies to speak or teach.
Getting a college degree was assumed for all of us. Since I was the oldest I was the first to learn about Freed-Hardeman College (now University). Daddy took a carful of high school girls to the school two consecutive years so that we could experience staying in the dorm and college life in general. Since I attended a small high school in north Alabama, going to a Christian college looked like heaven to me. Only a small percentage of students in our school even thought about going to college. By my senior year in high school I had applied for loans, grants, scholarships, and anything else available at the college because our family was going through slim times. Daddy was no longer preaching fulltime; he’d had a kidney removed because of cancer. Mama went to work teaching sewing classes, and Daddy worked when he was physically able as a deputy sheriff on the night shift as well as preaching in a little bitty church south of town.
The irony of this dream of education for his children is the end result of the four of us. One brother has a Ph.D.; two others have Masters Degrees. One is a dean and professor at a university. Next brother in line is a marriage and family therapist in a hospital and directs a community chorus. Youngest brother is a general in the U.S. Air Force. I retired after 33 years of teaching with a Masters and an Ed.D. Daddy did not live long enough to see all of these outcomes, but there is no doubt in any of our minds at how proud he would be of us.
Counting the joys from Willie Johnson’s legacy:
- Integrity and value of hard work
- Using all the gifts you’ve been given
- Appreciation of learning and a college education
- Opportunities to expand our horizon
- The gift of speaking and teaching
- The value of studying and being prepared
- Love of storytelling
- Appreciation and joy in singing four-part harmony