Jim Harris

People in Our Lives:

Homer Johnson Dies in 1957

            Working at the Lea County Museum of history, art, folklore, and regional culture, I know that I am likely to have moments each day when I pause and linger over an experience among the hundreds of artifacts from earlier times.

            Perhaps I am sitting beside a chair that belonged to a person who helped create the town of Lovington in 1908.

            Or I am walking down a second-story hallway lined with windows and doors  that were opened and closed in the 1930s.

            Or I am studying the photographed face of an 18-year-old farm boy killed in Europe in World War I.

            Or I am reading the words of millionaire cowman George Littlefield who established the largest ranch in the history of the county in the years following the Civil War.

            Any of these can make me stop whatever I am doing and remain motionless and silent for awhile so I can absorb as much as I can of the invigorating past that surrounds me.

            I call these experiences driveway moments (a term I stole from National Public Radio out of Portales), and they are  moments similar to those when you pull up in front of your home at the end of the day, and a memorable song comes on the radio, a song so mesmerizing that you resist shutting down the engine or pushing the off button on the radio.

            That’s the way I felt last week when I was going through materials donated to the museum by the heirs of Lovington’s Homer Johnson.

            Homer Johnson?

            For younger readers, or readers who do not regularly peruse this History Notebook column, here is a news story I found on the front page of a Lovington Leader issue published 63 years ago, on Tuesday, June 4, 1957: 

            “Homer R. Johnson, 71, died Sunday, June 2, in the office of a local physician.  He had been ill for several weeks, when his condition became suddenly worse.  He was rushed to a doctor’s office where death came at approximately 8:30 p.m.

            “Mr. Johnson was born March 25, 1886 in Mt. Airy, Tennessee.  He settled in Seminole, Texas, in 1913 where he was married to Katy Mae Lister.  He later came to Lovington, where he opened his business, known as the H. R. Johnson General Mercantile in 1925.  He had lived in Lovington since that time.

            “Funeral services were held at the Smith-Yarbro Chapel at 2 p.m. today.  Burial was in the Lovington Cemetery.  Rev. W.M. Beauchamp officiated.

            “Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife, and one daughter, Mrs. Carl King of Albuquerque; three sisters: Mrs. Edith Hixon, Alexandria, Louisiana; Miss Edith Hixon, Dunlap Tennessee; Mrs. Effie Pope, Corpus Christi, Texas; three brothers: Hoyt Johnson, Mt. Airy, Tennessee; Gerald Johnson, Los Angeles, California; and Wade Johnson, Dunlap, Tennessee.”

            And the context of the Leader news story of Johnson’s death?

            The publisher and editor of the Lovington-Daily Leader at that time was Agnes Kastner Head, and the bold-faced headline and story above the Johnson story reads, “Americans Warned About Socialism.”

            At the time Mrs. Head was letting everyone in Lovington know that socialism was going to eliminate American democracy and capitalism; Joseph McCarthy was taking care in the early 1950s to let the American people know that communism and socialism was about to take over the entire world. After 10 years as a US Senator from Wisconsin, he died just six months before Homer.

            Homer Johnson’s store, located on Central Street on the south side of the courthouse square, was a good example of how free-market capitalism was doing just fine in small town America.  The Johnson Store, 117 East Central, in downtown Lovington was the place to buy a variety of goods, from groceries to hardware, and it was also a place to just “hang out,” as more than one ole timer told me when the Johnson Store building in2008became part of the Lea County Museum.

            Last week I was reading the news of Homer Johnson’s death while in an adjoining building, the 1931 Lister Building, built by Homer’s father-in-law, I. W. Lister.  Homer’s wife, Katy Mae, was the daughter of Mr. Lister.

            In fact, Mr. Lister owned and built most of everything on the south side of the courthouse square beginning in the early 1920s. He had a car dealership, a service station, what became the Johnson Store, and the two-story Lister Building.

            And Homer’s daughter, his only surviving child, was Norma. Johnson’s one son, Graydon, had died when he was six years old, and Homer and Katy Mae showered an incredible amount of attention and love on their Norma.

            They took hundreds of photographs of her while she was growing up.  I can tell you there are hundreds of Norma images because I counted that many in boxes that were donated to the museum several years ago.  We have pictures of her as a toddler in her parents’ arms and as an adult woman managing her own family after she married Albuquerque’s Carl King in Lovington on Friday, September 12, 1947.

            Thus, my second driveway moment of that one day last week at the museum came when I picked up the many photographs in one box and realized they were all of Norma–Homer, and Katy Mae’s child who grew up and was photographed all over Lovington and “half of Texas,” as my father used to say.  There are pictures of her as a little girl in the alley behind the Johnson store. There are photographs of her in front of Lovington’s three-story Old Central School from which she graduated.

            There are photos of her in Cisco, Texas, where Homer lived before he moved to Seminole.  There are photos of her in San Antonio and in Galveston.

            In some of the photographs, Norma looks like she is practicing for a career as a model, and the images of her suggest her parents spared no expense in giving their daughter as many new clothes as she wanted and as the daughter of Lovington’s most important store owner could afford.

            In all their photos, Homer, Katy Mae, and Norma look prosperous, as if they were a family of privilege in Lovington from the 1920s to the 1950s when Homer passed away.

            With all the plotlines revolving around Homer’s marriage to the daughter of I. W. Lister, with all of the many individuals who were part of that extended family, I would guess there could be two or three fascinating books exploring the lives of several families and resolving the psychological and physical conflicts between a number of individuals who had a hand in the cultural life of Lovington in the first fifty years of its life.

            When Homer Johnson died in 1957, Lovington was just one year away from celebrating its first half-century.

            In that year the town was no more a frontier and no more only a farm-and-ranch town.

            With communication technologies available fifties that the first 1908 residents of Lovington could never have imagined, the town was joining the nation in fighting the Cold War with Russia.

            Homer Johnson’s world was incredibly different from our world 63 years later, but at the same time, it is remarkable how little we have changed despite the amazing communications of today.

            In fact, the smart phones and computers I carry with me help produce many of the driveway moments of my days at the Lea County Museum.

            They also help add to the list of people who are part of our lives.

            The Listers, Homer Johnson, and Norma Lister Johnson are now part of my life.