Monday, May 13, 2013

William Gordon Johnson, May 20, 1953 - March 20, 2013

William "Bill" Johnson was my brother.  I always called him my biggest brother but there was no other -- he was my only brother.  That he passed away almost two months ago and that I am only now writing my memorial to him is a failing on my part.  I was caught off guard by his death.  

Here is the text of his obituary, what he wanted written about himself:

 William G. Johnson, age 59, of Akron passed away at his home March 20, 2013 after a brief illness. 

Bill was born May 20, 1953 in Akron to the late Edna M. Johnson. He was a 1971 Graduate of St. Vincent High School and attended Akron University. He worked many years in Quality Control. 

Bill loved music, he enjoyed playing the Bass Guitar and listening to jazz and rock music especially Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. He loved to read, enjoying history and all types of machinery from cars, trucks, trains, to tanks. He was very knowledgeable about cars, able to pick out the make and model of a classic at any distance. Bill was a natural athlete, a long distance runner in his youth, and long distance cyclist on his Green Raleigh Bike later in life. He loved the Summit County Metro Parks, he spent many hours enjoying the parks. He also enjoyed photography of all kinds, especially taking photos of his children.

He is survived by his wife and best friend of 37 years, Virginia Johnson; his daughter, Alania Claire Johnson (Boyfriend, Andrew Mason) of Kingsville, Texas; his son, Miles William Johnson (girlfriend, Jennifer Patchen) of Berkley, California; his sisters, Becky Johnson of Akron, and Gena Johnson of North Hollywood, California; his father-in-law, George Botzman; and many brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces, and nephews.

Bill had a huge soft spot for cats, he would feed any stray that would stop by, because of his love, memorial contributions may be made to One of a Kind Pets, 1929 W. Market St., Akron, Ohio 44313

There are no calling hours or services. Private interment of his ashes will take place at a later date. Please visit to share condolences and memories at Bill's book of memories.


I want to share one memory that speaks to my brother at his best: playful, subversive, proud of himself and his black brothers.  

We went to Catholic schools, first St. Bernard's grade school then St. Vincent High School (now St. Vincent-St. Mary's) in Akron, Ohio.  Bill was two years older than me so when I got to St. V he was a junior.  At the time, St. V was publicly renowned for its athletics (as it is occasionally today) but for those of us who navigated its hallways, it was notorious for a kind of thuggishness that sometimes comes with athletic attainment. And there weren't many black students.  In Bill's class there was one girl, I think, and four or five boys.  He was friends with Steve and Tony.  

My recollection of dates is fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure it was the school talent show of  my freshman year.  I don't think I told anyone but I was terrified of the junior and senior class boys, brutish Polish and Italian linebackers (Akron was a very ethnic place back then) who tormented their underlings.  I digress.  

Everyone was required to attend talent show.  My brother and Tony performed.  Tony, who I think was a running back for the football team, had a black belt in karate.  Both Bill and Tony had glorious afros (as you can probably tell from the photo).  Tony, with Bill's able assistance, proceeded to break things with his hands.  Boards, bricks, stuff.  Neither said a word.  Just bowed and walked off stage, leaving their handiwork behind.

Everyone knew that was my brother and his friend.  All eight of us scrawny, black and brown freshmen knew we were safe.

And lastly, for Bill, for all of us,  a poem by Lucille Clifton.  This gave me the courage to finally write this remembrance (I realize now that all 3 men have now passed away -- Bill and Tony, and Steve, their friend):

you are not
your brothers keeper
you are 
your brother

the one 
hiding in the bush
is you

the one
lying on the grate
is you

the mad one in the cage
or on the podium
is you

the king is you
the kike is you
the honky is you
the nigger is you
the bitch is you
the beauty is you
the friend is you
the enemy    oh

others have come 
to say this
it is not

you are not 
your sisters keeper
you are 
your sister    yes

From The Ones, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010
(thanks to Jean Riesman for sending just what I needed)

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