In the early hours of Dec. 16, 1943, doctors from Red Springs, N.C., raced to an overpass near Rennert, where North Carolina’s deadliest train wreck had just occurred. They were joined by medical personnel from across the region attempting to rescue and treat as many as possible.
Working alongside the doctors was 15-year-old Charles Johnson Jr., son of Dr. Charles Johnson Sr., one of Red Springs’ four resident physicians. Had there been time to notice a teenager in their midst, nobody would have been concerned. They knew young Charles from earliest childhood to be at his father’s side in the office, on house calls and around town.
“It was a terrible night,” he recalls. “It was so cold the syringes froze.” Many of the 72 dead were servicemen traveling home for the holidays.
For Charles Jr., the memory of that horrific emergency blends with countless other calls his father took at all hours. “Dad worked seven days a week. It was taken for granted that he would come when called,” and often the son went too. This is a prevailing memory and one of several stories Charles and his wife Dare shared of their lives in the small town of Red Springs.
Born in 1928 in the family home on Red Springs’ South Main Street, Johnson took his place in the community naturally, attending public schools, pitching in with chores and helping Dad on the job. “There was nothing unusual about it,” he recalled. “It was just taken for granted.”
“Dad was raised on a farm and for many years we kept two cows, chickens and a garden.” It fell to Charles, the oldest son and second oldest of four children, to milk the cows and clean the chicken house every Saturday morning. “We used the manure in mother’s prize rose garden,” he said. “We used everything. It’s true that kids used dried cow paddies to mark bases for ball games.”
As he grew older, he passed some household chores to his siblings and took “real” jobs at Garret-McNeill Grocery, Graham’s department store and Red Springs Drugs.
During those years, Red Springs’ four doctors — Henry H. Hodgen, Sr., John Bender, Roscoe McMillian and Charles Johnson Sr. — stayed busy in a town that flourished with mills, a strong agricultural base and Flora Macdonald College.
Beyond Red Springs
World War II demanded that Johnson rethink his education. He left Red Springs High School in grade 10 and entered Wake Forest University having first passed required exams. After a semester, he transferred to Duke, earning his bacholor’s degree in 1948.
At Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where his father had studied, he earned his doctorate in 1953. A one-year internship at Raleigh’s Rex Hospital in 1954 was followed by two years as a captain in the Air Force, serving as medical officer and base surgeon at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he received the Commendation Ribbon for Meritorious Service and then on to a one-year residency at the Medical College of Virginia.
In Richmond, friends Becky and Dave Hill introduced him to Virginia Dare Peace. The relationship began with Johnson asking three important questions: Did she have a car, an apartment, and a blender? The answers were yes, yes, and yes, although she later admitted to running out to buy a blender.
Dare Peace grew up in rural New Kent, a small community east of Richmond, the only child of a farmer father and schoolteacher mother. Valedictorian in 1952, she attended Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Va., for two years before transferring to UNC Chapel Hill to study the new field of medical technology, graduating in 1956. By the second half of that year, she too was at the Medical College of Virginia, earning a second bachelor’s degree in 1957.
The romance flourished despite heavy work and study schedules. In July 1957, Johnson returned to Red Springs to join his father in practice, but only a few months later returned to Richmond to propose. With little time for wedding preparations, the senior Johnsons gave the young couple a house on East Third Avenue and Johnson headed for Conway, S.C. with his friend Glenn Overton, who had a friend who owned a furniture store. Johnson drove home with a truck full of furniture, none of which Dare saw until after it was in the house.
Meanwhile, with help from family, Dare planned a Dec. 27 wedding at Broad Street Methodist Church in Richmond and a reception at the Jefferson Hotel. Because Duke was playing in the Orange Bowl in Miami that year, the newlyweds honeymooned in Florida.
At home in Red Springs
The pace at which Charles and Dare managed their busy pre-marriage lives set the tempo for the life that followed.
Red Springs in 1958 was the quintessential southern small town. For the doctor’s new bride, life meant establishing membership in virtually every community organization, most of which promoted activities that contributed to the town’s well-being.
Dare’s mother-in-law, Myrtis Elise Dukes Johnson, daughter of a Methodist minister and an active participant in the town’s life, introduced her daughter-in-law at each meeting and to neighbors Isabelle Buie, Nan Bullock and Helen Buie, “who knew everyone and everything” in Red Springs.
“Mrs. Johnson hosted a reception for me,” says Dare, who remembers Red Springs as a very social town with frequent parties and dinners. “Everyone was very welcoming. I felt like I belonged here,” she said. “I wasn’t here any time at all before I was busy with projects and met many people.”
Most of the organizations and clubs that Dare joined in 1958 she continues in today, and typically she has held their various offices several times over. A few are the Robeson County Medical Auxiliary, Red Springs Garden Club, Dilettante Book Club, Robeson County Cotillion and the circles of Red Springs Presbyterian Church.
She also kept house and helped a husband who worked seven days a week, including Sunday afternoons. After church and Sunday lunch at the senior Johnsons’ home, the two doctors went to the office for whatever length of time was required.
Two Doctor Johnsons
Johnson had fallen into step with his father, accepting patients with varied needs and a wide range of payment plans, including hams, possum stews and freshly harvested vegetables. The practice served everyone, regardless of race or age, although the separation of waiting rooms for white and non-white patients continued when Charles joined his father. But, he emphasized, “We made house calls to all patients.”
With two Dr. Charles Johnsons on staff, some differentiation was called for. “Patients usually referred to us as Old Dr. Johnson and Young Dr. Johnson,” he explained, adding that nurse Emma Breeden settled on calling his father “the real Dr. Johnson.”
In April 1959 the young family welcomed daughter Elise (now Virginia Elise Johnson McMillan). Busy as usual, Johnson took Dare to the Lumberton hospital, dropped her off and raced to Scotland County to deliver a baby before returning to Lumberton to meet his new daughter. Her birth strengthened his commitment to the town, and he registered to run for the Red Springs Board of Education that very day.
Twelve months and 12 days later son Thomas (Charles Thomas Johnson III) completed the family.
While their children were young, Dare worked in the office on an occasional basis, filling in as needed. As a medical technologist, her training allowed her to perform clinical laboratory tests as well as general nursing duties. However, because patients often came to their home, she too was on call virtually around the clock. When the children entered high school, she went to work full time.
Charles Johnson Sr. retired in 1968, 10 years after Charles Jr. joined him in practice. The elder Dr. Johnson died in March 1969 and the younger Dr. Johnson continued alone for many years except for one summer with Dr. Herman Chavis, while Chavis was still a student at UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Chavis later partnered with Dr. Kenneth Locklear in a Red Springs practice.
When Charles and Dare decided it was time to retire, they sold the practice to Southeastern Regional Medical Center and agreed to take physician’s assistant Bob Hollingsworth into the practice and sponsor him for two years.
Partners in medical care, Charles and Dare Johnson partnered in community life, as well.
Like his father before him, Johnson sat on the Red Springs Board of Education, serving for 18 years that saw great change in public education. Red Springs was the first system in Robeson County to integrate its schools. Red Springs Colored School, the first black school in town, served the lower grades for many years and then all 12 grades beginning in 1929. In 1958 the school’s name was changed to Peterson High School, honoring John Truman Peterson, then principal.
“Professor Peterson ran a great school,” Johnson said. Peterson retired in 1965 but had helped lay the groundwork for integration that occurred in 1969. “The schools were ready,” Johnson said.
Johnson stepped down from the school board the year Elise graduated from high school, receiving a diploma with his name on it. The following year, when Thomas graduated, Charles no longer signed diplomas. But in view of his lengthy service, he was given the opportunity to present his son’s diploma.
A tornado destroyed much of Red Springs on March 28, 1984. Peterson, then an elementary school, was destroyed, as was the Presbyterian church the Johnson family attended. Although Sunday worship continued at the Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation building, the congregation was eager to rebuild. Johnson agreed to serve as chairman of the building committee. For two years, the committee worked with Whiteville contractor A.G. Carter to restore the sanctuary as completely as possible and to replace the fellowship hall and kitchen with larger, more modern features.
To save money and preserve history, the committee bargained with Flora Macdonald Academy for bricks from a building that was being replaced and used them to construct a portico at the back of the church.
Other building projects presented themselves, as well. Johnson helped plan retirement homes Scotia Village in Laurinburg and Glen Flora in Lumberton, as well as the Red Springs Fitness Center. He served on the Robeson County Board of Health, receiving the Dr. D.E. Inman Award, the Robeson Medical Society and the board of trustees and foundation of Southeastern Regional Medical Center.
Toward the end of the 1980s, Johnson decided to run for the Red Springs Town Council. He lost the election, but not long after was appointed to complete the term previously held by pharmacist Dusty Rhodes and then elected to a full term in the next election when he was elected mayor pro tem. That board, working closely with then Town Manager Wayne Horne, adopted rules that established more orderly proceedings at council meetings.
One action of the town council coincided with another of the Johnsons’ interests: local history. The Red Springs Historical Commission, formed in 1981 but often idle until 1997, needed a home. Artifacts, displayed in the high school, were not easily accessible. In May 1998 the town purchased a 1,600-square-foot property beside Town Hall for the establishment of an historical museum to which residents supplied hundreds of additional artifacts.
Within several years, space requirements grew so that Grace Britt, curator of the museum, said a move to a more spacious location was a “must.” St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, with 2,366 square feet, built in 1959 and no longer needed as a church, proved the perfect location and was purchased in 2003 with a $75,000 grant and a $45,000 USDA loan. With volunteer help, the museum appropriately displays and maintains exhibits. Johnson chaired the museum board for 14 years.
Dare, a Dilettante Book Club member since her earliest days in Red Springs, in 2003 suggested the book club support the museum by contracting for a sculpture honoring Red Springs astronaut Bill McArthur. Funds were raised, sculptor Paul Van Zandt hired and the resulting abstract sculpture stands today in front of the museum, testifying to one man’s ability to rise to extraordinary heights. More than 700 people visit the museum each year, probably a good number given the limited hours of 2-5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Sundays.
While Charles worked and contributed to the schools, town commission, the museum and several medical organizations, Dare was knee-deep in office work and a similarly long list of activities, beginning with Brownies, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and, later, the town gardens, flower shows, plant sales and the annual Miss Red Springs Pageant, sponsored by the book club.
For several years she served on the Robeson County Morehead Scholarship Committee, which demanded time for meetings, interviews and receptions, but provided rewards. “It restored my faith in young people,” she said. “I met many remarkable nominees.” Each high school in the county nominated two students.
In 1986, the Home Delivered Meals Program was established and Dare organized 22 volunteers to deliver five meals a day, five days a week. She has continued that work ever since, and it is a rare person in Red Springs who has not been asked to help. Many of those she asks are former patients. Charles has been her most constant volunteer.
Today, Home Delivered Meals in Red Springs delivers 16 meals a day, and there has never been a shortage of volunteers. “We now take meals to some who were once themselves volunteers,” she said. The program is managed by the Lumber River Council of Governments Program on Aging.
Dare was recognized as the county’s Volunteer of the Year in 2003, along with Dorothy Wilkerson, who organized a similar program in Lumberton. In 1993 Dare received the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service.
Today the Johnsons live in the house on Lumberton Road that they built when they outgrew their first home. They gathered up ideas and took them to architect Elizabeth Lee. “We had been seeing patients in our living room,” Johnson explained. “And we thought it would be a good thing to build an office in our new home so that they could have privacy and we could have a place for records and supplies.”
That was in 1966. Forty-six years later, years that included enjoyable travels and vacations together, not too many patients use that door any more. But it is still there, and the space is still dedicated to whatever medical needs might come their way. More often the back door opens to friends and family, especially to the five grandchildren who come and go with spontaneous ease.
Some might say that the world Johnson was born into and the community that Dare married into have changed radically. When thinking of the Johnson partnership, they are more likely to say the kind of changes they promoted happen when people come together day after day doing what is needed and what is right.