March 5, 2013
In my experience, this does not resemble an official function of the First Presbyterian Church, or even of Gainesville. The setting, the music, the people are all here, yet the day doesn’t seem complete. Something is missing.
Of course that’s the whole reason we’re here: Charles Johnson is no longer with us.
Charles Johnson was my uncle and my godfather. I have a perfectly good father, so when I was very young I wondered what a godfather was. I concluded the title was purely honorary, and it meant he was special. Specifically, he was thoughtful, generous, friendly, and a wonderful musician. He loved good company, and he enjoyed time alone. Some of you knew him much longer than I did, and you know he possessed these qualities. For those who did not know Uncle Charles as long or as well as I did, I can offer some examples that illustrate his character.
First, it is no surprise that Charles Johnson enjoyed having friends. He had friends here in town and out in the wider world. When I was 13 years old, Uncle Charles took me to Washington, DC for the first time. We rode the Southern Crescent from Gainesville to Washington. We toured the White House, the Smithsonian Institution, and saw the big monuments. As we walked through the Capitol building one afternoon, he stopped two men who were walking by and introduced me to Senators Howard Baker of Tennessee and Herman Talmadge from Georgia. They talked to each other for several minutes like old friends. When we walked away, I said, “I didn’t know you knew those senators.” Uncle Charles said, “Oh, I don’t.” They had no idea who he was. They simply talked to him in a gregarious way because they were politicians, and he talked to them in a friendly way because he was outgoing.
A few years later I visited Washington, DC with my high school history class. It was a notorious trip if you ask our principal, Curtis Segars, who is here today. I told Uncle Charles that the teacher had arranged for us to meet Senator Sam Nunn. He came to me the next day and said, “Be sure to tell Sam I said hello, and give him this letter.” I said I would, but doubted he really knew Senator Nunn. I thought maybe he just wanted to make me look good in front of my classmates. Well, we met Senator Nunn as scheduled in a private meeting room in the Capitol. When he asked if anyone had any questions, I said, “Senator, my uncle asked me to give you this letter, and tell you he said hello.” He was a warm and patient man, and he said, “That’s awfully nice. Who is your uncle?” I said, “Charles Johnson.” Senator Nunn smiled a big smile and took the letter from me. He said, “Young man, when I was 16 years old, Charlie Johnson and my cousin Robert Jennings took me on my first trip to New York City. Charlie Johnson bought me my first drink. You tell Charlie I said hello, and thank him for the letter.” After that, I was never surprised to meet someone who knew Uncle Charles and counted him as a friend.
Uncle Charles himself ran into friends all over the world. As many of you know, Charles came from the small town of Siloam, Georgia. In World War II, he served in the Army Medical Corps in Okinawa. Sure enough, in 1946 he ran into a hometown acquaintance in Okinawa. His friend was part of an aircrew flying photographic survey flights of battle damage in Japan. One day he asked Charlie to join him on a flight. The flight took them low over the devastated city of Nagasaki. While Uncle Charles was often lucky enough to experience the best the world had to offer, he also got to see the worst.
When I turned 16 and could drive, I asked Uncle Charles if I could have a job as a delivery boy at Riverside Pharmacy. He hired me. I always suspected nepotism, but I know his partner, Joann Adams, also had a say in my employment, so I suppose he and Mrs. Adams hired me out of generosity and kindness. Did anyone else here today ever work at Riverside Pharmacy? You know what I mean. You also know automotive knowledge wasn’t his strong suit, otherwise he never would have let us drive that ’72 Vega.
About the time I started working at the drugstore, I asked Uncle Charles if I could borrow some money to buy a car. He loaned me $1,300 to be repaid $100 a month at zero percent interest. Now that I work in banking, I appreciate what a good deal that was. But it got better: the day after I made the final payment, Uncle Charles gave all of the money back to me. He never would have given me a car outright if I had asked for it, but he was happy to give me what I had proven I could accomplish through persistence and hard work.
I learned other lessons from Uncle Charles. When I worked at Riverside Pharmacy, I probably saw many of you come in as customers. A person can learn a lot about people by seeing what they purchase in a drugstore. I remember one evening in particular when someone came in to pick up a prescription. I had seen the label on the bottle, so I knew what the medicine was, and what it was for. After the customer left, Uncle Charles and I stood behind the prescription counter sorting charge tickets for the day. He turned to me and said, “The medicine people take is a personal matter.” Nothing more. That’s the lesson I always remember when I am tempted to gossip.
Over the years I learned still other things from Uncle Charles, sometimes in places far from the drugstore. He loved to travel, and he visited me at various duty stations when I was in the Navy. He even flew to Corpus Christi, Texas in February 1989 and pinned on my wings when I became a Naval Aviator. In 1992 when I was stationed in Italy, he flew to Germany and joined me on R&R. We toured Munich and Salzburg together and had a great time. We even attended a Mozart concert in a room where Mozart himself had performed the very same music. After dinner one night in Munich we went to Harry’s Bar. Harry’s in Munich is a sister establishment to the famous Harry’s in Paris where Ernest Hemingway and his crowd hung out in the 1920s — and my sister and her friends hung out in the 1980s. Anyway, I was in my late twenties at the time. I wasn’t married or even seeing anyone. Over drinks, I asked Uncle Charles about his life. He understood I was asking in a roundabout way if he was lonely as a lifelong bachelor. He told me, “A person can be alone, and a person can be lonely. They are two different things. I live alone, but I’m not lonely. You won’t be, either.” He didn’t open up like that very often, but he was kind enough to share those thoughts with me.
In his appreciation of time alone, Uncle Charles sometimes traveled alone. His last big trip by himself was to New York City in 2002 or 2003. He saw some Broadway shows, enjoyed some nice restaurants, and took long walks. He asked a cabbie if he could ride down to the south end of Manhattan and see the World Trade Center site. The cabbie told him he couldn’t get close enough to see anything, so Uncle Charles walked. He walked several blocks farther than a 76-year-old man should have. I’m sure he ducked under several police tape barriers. Eventually he came to the scene of the demolition and debris removal that continued for months after 9/11. He stood there at night, alone, and took in the scene. After he got back home, I asked him what it was like. He said, “It looked like Nagasaki.”
Finally, and as you well know, Charles Johnson loved music. Two of his favorite pieces were George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Frederic Chopin’s Etude #3 in E-major. I listen to these two pieces often in a 2005 recording of Uncle Charles playing his favorite selections on the piano in his living room. He played Rhapsody in Blue for his senior recital at the University of Georgia. He loved that one in particular, and of course he loved the music we are hearing in the service this morning. He selected it himself in anticipation of this day. I’m sorry he couldn’t be here to enjoy it, and to see all of you. He genuinely enjoyed knowing you.
The next time you hear Rhapsody in Blue, think of Charlie Johnson playing it as a young man at the University of Georgia with his whole career before him. Think about how it must have felt for him to know that for the rest of his life he would be able to share that kind of beauty with people. Generosity, thoughtfulness, kindness, and beauty enrich an occasion. They make it special. Sharing them was Charles Johnson’s gift. Whether with his music or his company, he could make any occasion seem complete.