Spring 2020. The world shut down because of Covid 19, but Calbert Johnson was just getting cranked up. He started making videos with live commentary of his late-night visitors, Rowdy the Racoon and Opie the Possum. His social media posts entertained folks all over the country as people followed his Round Up Drive Restaurant. At 83 years old, Mr. Johnson became something of a local media celebrity. He stayed current with all the technology and loved tracking his followers and likes and shares. I would receive text messages saying he couldn’t wait to talk about his analytics with me. I would tell him I didn’t know what analytics were, and he would tell me I needed to do better. “You’ve got to keep up,” he would say. It was hard to keep up with a dynamo like Calbert Johnson. Even in his 80’s.
December 2020. He recorded the Christmas story from the chapters of Luke, turned them into podcasts, and posted them to his social media account. He wanted to record the entire Bible but decided the Christmas story was a good start. An old proverb says, “It’s better to start in the evening than not to start at all.” Cal Johnson personified that quote. He was always challenging himself to do better. Even in his 80’s, he had things he wanted to do.
Mr. Johnson was not one to do things half way. He was a perfectionist. He had figured out that first thing in the morning was the best time to record his episodes before the glue on his dentures got loose. He always liked me to pre-view his recordings. Even if I told him they sounded great, he would re-record, trying to get them as close to perfect as possible. He recorded one chapter (I wish I could remember which one) 27 times. I told him not to spend so much time on one chapter. “What else is an old, single man going to do?” was his reply. I would tell him that plenty of old people just sat and watched TV, but not Mr. Johnson.
February 11, 2021. Calbert Johnson died.
These two projects give us a pretty good summary of Mr. Johnson, the things he was known for, and the things he loved.
1. His family. Mr. Johnson loved his family unconditionally. He was proud of them all.
2. His church. Mr. Johnson loved doing God’s work.
3. His Voice. Whether he was working at Bishopville’s radio station, WAGS, or narrating programs at church, or making podcasts, Mr. Johnson was known for his voice. Some called it Walter Cronkite-like. Some called it gravelly and some called it smooth. We will all miss that voice of his.
4. His Hometown. As a former mayor and city council member, Mr. Johnson loved his hometown. He wanted the best for Bishopville. He had very high standards for those around him. You always knew where he stood on an issue. He wasn’t afraid to take a stand. I’m not sure he was scared of much.
Mr. Johnson would not take “no” for an answer when he approached me about helping promote the Major Capers homecoming event. Those stories turned out to be one of the best projects for my career. Every time I thanked Mr. Johnson, he gave me many variations of “I told you so.” He could be annoying in that way, but it was part of his charm. The weekend of that homecoming, he was in pain, but would not have missed that event for the world. He was hard headed and determined to the very end. But that weekend, he was proud. Proud of the way his small town came together. Proud of what that event meant for race relations.
Because he loved his town so much, he wanted the best for it. Any time he got cranked up about the town not implementing the newest alert system, I lied and said I had someone beeping in on the other line. It didn’t take long before he called me on it. He was smart that way.
5. Me. Mr. Johnson loved me, and I loved him right back. I often wondered if I was the daughter he never had or if he was a father-figure to me. Either way, the universe put us together. Funny how the universe always seems to give us what we need, even if we are not sure why we need it. Ours was an unusual friendship, but I considered Calbert Johnson one of my best friends. We worked together at The State newspaper back in the 90’s. We would always save each other a seat in large meetings. Small town people stick together that way. We lost touch after the heydays of the newspaper and only saw each other occasionally at church. Facebook brought us back together. After my father died, Mr. Johnson filled a void I didn’t even really know I had. He grew up with my daddy. He loved sharing stories about Gene Davis, and I loved hearing them. Sometimes I asked Mr. Johnson for advice. Many times he gave me advice whether I asked for it or not. We were always honest with each other. That’s the only way Mr. Johnson knew how to be. Sugar coating and softening were not traits he possessed. Before he died, when he knew the end was coming, Mr. Johnson told me he was going to find my daddy in heaven and tell him all about my stories and the work I was doing. He kept telling me how proud my daddy would be. Even at the very end, he comforted and encouraged me. The last text I got from Mr. Johnson said, “I’m going home. I hope you keep writing.” He did go home, and I will keep writing.
If there is a heaven, I’m pretty sure Mr. Johnson is there. “Home,” he called it at the end. He’s with his beloved wife, Carol. Heaven wouldn’t be heaven without pets, so I love picturing his little dog, Bitsy, jumping into Mr. Johnson’s arms. I know he was a man of his word, so I trust that he found my daddy. Oh, the stories those two are telling as they catch up. And I hope to goodness that heaven has implemented an appropriate alert system. If not, Mr. Johnson will get that straightened out in jig time. Even in heaven, I hope he’s giving somebody a little hell.
Rest in peace, Mr. Johnson.Watch over us all.
April 2019 at the Lee County Public Library at the book signing that Mr. Johnson coordinated.