My father died May 4, 2004 at about 4:00 p.m. I had the privilege of being his brawny home health aid for the last six weeks of his life. The following is a combined version of his eulogy and newspaper death notice:
Virgil Johnson, my father, husband to Edna, father to Jena and William too, was a complicated man. It is that complexity that I most appreciated. When I was a little girl, just learning to read, my father would have me read the newspaper to him and then debate the meaning of the days’ news. In his final weeks of life he asked me to read the front page and the news of the Cleveland Indians, every day. And just like in my childhood, we discussed the meaning of the news and what he hoped for the world.
My father was born in Oakland Tennessee in a time when it was hard, indeed, unsafe to be a black man in the south. It is a testament to his resilience and his families sense of family that so many of the menfolk have lived into their 80's and 90's. My father, like his brothers, created families and businesses, prospering in ways they could have never predicted. In later years he shared memories of the good and the bad and marveled at how far we had come as a people.
Virgil Johnson was always learning something new: trying a new recipe, planting something new in the vegetable garden, indeed, becoming an organic gardener in his 70's. In his early 80's he and my mother went to his first national demonstration, the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. They became life members of the NAACP.
My father had a tender side, which he expressed in many ways, perhaps the most touching was his commitment to rescuing animals abandoned in our immediate neighborhood. He would take in these cats and dogs and give them a home.
He loved his family in Tennessee, traveling to visit with them, when his health allowed, always accompanied by his special nephew Jesse Edward Gooden. As you can see he left us quite a legacy but he wanted his most lasting accomplishment to be that he left a secure life for his beloved wife, Edna. In that he was eminently successful.
Virgil Terrell Johnson was born in Oakland, Tennessee on October 13, 1916. He left Oakland and the farm at 22 living in Harrisburg, PA and working the in the steel mill before enlisting in the Army. He returned to civilian life, settling in Akron in 1946. Mr. Johnson married his devoted wife, Edna Lucille Finney, in 1956. He worked at General Tire for 35 years. Mr. Johnson frequently worked two jobs. He always found ways to express his love of farming and gardening. He always maintained one and frequently two vegetable gardens and labored to maintain a perfectly green lawn. He later founded Johnson’s Lawn Service which he operated for 25 years.
Mr. Johnson was an avid cook, always trying new recipes and experimenting with old. He was an excellent cake baker. He fished the Portage Lakes whenever he could frequently hauling in a bountiful catch. He was a devoted fan of the Negro Leagues and later the Cleveland Indians.
He was preceded in death by his parents Jesse and Mary Terrell Johnson, of Oakland. TN; brothers Laurence and Wis of Oakland, TN; and sisters Bea Gooden Person and Ola La Rue James of Akron, OH; , Ethelbelle Flipping of Memphis,TN; and Lennie Mary Edinburg of Oakland, TN.
Mr. Johnson is survived by his beloved wife, Edna L. Johnson; children, William G. Johnson and his wife Ginnie, Rebecca O. Johnson of Boston, MA and her partner Patricia Maher and Jena T. Johnson of Palmdale, CA and her partner Mary Jane; grandchildren, Miles and Alania Johnson; special nephew, Jesse Edward Gooden; many nieces, nephews, and dear friends.