First Posted: 4/30/2014
Wyatt Johnson began life in 1928 in Eufaula, a small Alabama town where he grew up and graduated from high school. Unable to afford college, needing employment and a desire for more learning, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. During his years of service he acquired skills that were helpful in civilian life when he became a leader in Lumberton, N.C.
Johnson was Lumberton city councilman for 25 years and continues numerous community and neighborly activities. When he retired as councilman of Precinct 2 in 2010 at the age of 82, he was highly honored for his years of service. Because of his experience with the City Council, he says that some people in Precinct 2 still call to express their problems to him.
In the Depression days of his childhood, Johnson’s parents, Douglas and Alberta Johnson, and their three sons lived in a three-room house: two bedrooms and a kitchen. The boys all slept in the same bed. And, he says, just getting enough food to survive was an accomplishment. The only other usable structure was an outhouse. His father was a carpenter — “a good carpenter,” he adds — and his mother did odd jobs like cooking and ironing and worked in a pecan factory during the harvest season.
Wyatt attended several schools. From the first through the fourth grades, he attended a school in a church building. The teacher, who lived in his neighborhood and drove neighborhood kids to and from school, taught all four grades. From the fifth grade through graduation, he attended an all-grades school across town. Although there was a school on his side of town, racial segregation prevented him from attending it. But, he says, his high school, Van Buren, had every subject now taught in today’s better high schools.
His parents had dropped out of school after the 8th grade, and there was little discussion of higher education in the home. But Johnson thirsted for more knowledge. After graduating in 1947, he enlisted in the Army at Ft. Benning, Ga. in March 1948 and learned all he could during his years of service. After marrying, he began to take his family to be with him during distant assignments.
In his youth and until the 1960s, Johnson says, the feelings of resentment caused by restrictions of racial segregation were mitigated by the kindness and generosity of numerous white people. He got his first “job” when he was in the seventh grade. He was engaged to spend time entertaining and playing with a very active little white boy. The father of the child had taken a liking to Wyatt and invited him on a trip to Atlanta, providing him with several opportunities there, as well as in his hometown.
After enlisting in the Army, a nervous young Wyatt Johnson made ready for his first train trip, which headed north to Ft. Dix, N.J. for basic training. He later had subsequent training at Ft. Lee, Va., Ft. Sill, Okla. and Ft. Belvoir, Va. When Johnson first entered the Army, the units were racially segregated but that changed in the 1950s during the Korean War. Sometimes his travels between bases required an overnight train trip, and he thought the Pullman sleeper car was great.
As he advanced in training and rank, he was no longer called Wyatt, but Johnson, always by rank. His list of assignments included 11 major combat campaigns, including Korea and Vietnam. He had five missions in Germany. In one of his assignments in Germany he was a member of Support Command, which had custody of nuclear weapons for Britain, France and Germany.
During his military career, he became a master parachutist, making 125 jumps. His last assignments were with an advisory group to the Wisconsin National Guard at Madison,Wis., and then to Germany for three years. When he retired from the Army after 28 years with the rank of command sergeant major, he had accumulated awards for exceptional achievement and meritorious service, and medals and decorations for combat service.
When he retired from the military and returned to civilian life in 1976, Johnson came to Lumberton, the home of his wife, the former LaJoan Stewart, whom he met in 1952 while stationed at Ft. Bragg and married in 1955. The couple moved into the home they had purchased in 1962.
Wyatt soon took an administrative position with the Lumberton city school system. When the five school systems in the county merged into one countywide system in 1989, he transferred to that system and worked until 1992.
He also continued his quest for education, studying at Selena-Womack Business College, which was on Cedar Street where the current central fire station is, Campbell College (now Campbell University) and Robeson Technical College.
As was his nature, he soon became very involved in the life of the city. He enjoys hobbies, especially sports, music and politics. In 1985 he successfully ran for the Lumberton City Council representing his home precinct, No. 2, and remained a fixture on the council for 25 years. He was opposed in only one election.
Johnson says that his longevity on the council is the result of the dedicated attention he paid to the needs of his constituents, listening carefully to their requests and working to meet their needs. He says that when he and Robert Shaw, his close friend on the council, got together, much of their conversation was about how they could better serve anyone or any group for whom they might in any way be responsible in their roles as civil servants.
LaJoan became a teacher and minister of a nondenominational church that she, with Wyatt’s help, founded because she saw a need for such a church in the neighborhood. The modest church building was across the street from their home on land they owned. She gathered people from the neighborhood, especially children, to become worshipers. The building was later replaced by a more adequate one and LaJoan continues her ministry.
Although he occasionally attends LaJoan’s church,Wyatt never joined it or became a regular attendee. He remained dedicated to Bethany Presbyterian Church on Elizabethtown Road and is still active. He has served as a choir member, Sunday school teacher, superintendent, elder, deacon and member of the board of trustees. He was a member of the social justice committee of the church Senate, a member of Synod of Middle Atlantic Presbyterian and past moderator of the Coastal Carolina Presbytery. He served on the Presbytery Council, personnel committee and budget committee.
Wyatt and LaJoan are proud of their four children. The son, Charles Wyatt, the baby of the family, was president of his class from the seventh through the 12th grade and president of the student body during his senior year. He played all high school sports except basketball. A graduate of Winston-Salem State, he lives in Raleigh, where he is a church bishop, trains others for the ministry and is a motivational speaker. Roxanne, who graduated from high school in Germany when Wyatt was stationed there, lives in Lumberton and works at Southeastern Regional Medical Center; Grace, who lives in Bladenboro, recently retired from juvenile justice in Robeson, Bladen and Brunswick counties; and Anita, who lives in Raleigh, works as a personnel recruiter.
The Johnsons also have nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, and Wyatt says the joy of their lives is when the entire family gets together for life’s main events: weddings, birthdays, holidays and anniversaries.
Johnson has a long list of honors and has served in numerous community leadership positions. Some of his special honors include: outstanding citizen awards for work in human relations, Mayor’s Committee for Handicapped award; county Leukemia Association award; Governor’s Distinguished Service Award from Gov. Jim Hunt; special recognition from Union Chapel Baptist Church; Sandy Grove Baptist Church award; two awards for community service; two certificates of acknowledgment and congratulations for dedication and service to the community from the N.C. House of Representatives, and the Order of the Long Leaf Pine from Gov. Bev Perdue, Nov. 12, 2012
He served in an advisory capacity to Southern National Bank before its merger with Branch Banking and Trust Company, the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, COMtech and the Community Achievement Network. He was a Robeson County Public Library trustee and the city liaison to the Lumberton Tourism Development Association.
Johnson has belonged to numerous civic organizations and continues membership in some. He has chaired the Robeson County Girl Scout Board of Directors, Robeson County Veterans Council, Lumberton Housing Authority and Lumberton Recreation Commission. He is a past coordinator of the Robeson County Special Olympics and was chaplain of Post 8969 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.