Billy Johnson could melt you with a stare — and the kindest of hearts

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 30, 2016

SALISBURY — It’s difficult to know where to start with Billy Johnson.

Do you talk about “The Stare”? Do you mention the “Blue Devil Express”? She also had that incredible sweet tooth, a penchant for big-as-a-boat Buick station wagons or bidding goodbye by saying “See you later, alligator,” or “After while, crocodile,” or “Real soon, raccoon.”

Billy Johnson, 96, died Sunday, leaving behind a much greater legacy. She was a shrewd, caring businesswoman who, when beloved husband Allen died in 1982, immediately stepped in to become chairman, president, and managing partner of at least three different companies.

A granddaughter, Starling Kaklamanos, said Billy Johnson’s first concern after her husband’s sudden death was assuring the employees of B.V. Hedrick Gravel & Sand, Johnson Concrete Co. and Carolina Stalite that their jobs were secure.

At the time she was 62. “She came out of retirement and went to work,” daughter Joanne Johnson said.

Billy Johnson put her economics degree from Duke University to good use, worked deep into her late 80s and early 90s and helped to keep the family companies vital.

“It was a blessing,” Shirley Misenheimer said of working for Johnson. “She was so sweet. I loved her very, very much.”

Even before becoming a chief executive, Johnson served as chairman of a local bank board. She belonged to the Catawba College Board of Trustees. The school bestowed on her its highest honor, the Adrian L. Shuford Award for Distinguished Service.

At places such as First United Methodist Church, Catawba College, Duke University, Piedmont Players Theatre, and Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, facilities and programs carry the Johnson name and often were made possible through the donations of Billy Johnson.

Someone sort of joked at Johnson’s funeral Thursday that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Duke Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski walk in and find a pew. The man then looked over his shoulder just to make sure Coach K wasn’t coming in.

Billy Johnson had a lot to do with the founding of Waterworks Visual Arts Center and was a shining light for Meals on Wheels in Rowan County.

Susan Wallace Casey said with Johnson’s passing, the last surviving member of the venerable Betsy Brandon Book Club is gone.

But hardly forgotten.

“One remarkable Southern lady,” said longtime friend and pastor, the Rev. Fred Jordan Jr. Jordan said he ate many times at Billy Johnson’s dinner table, accompanied her family on vacations and even was dunked in her swimming pool.

Jordan stressed that when Billy graduated from Boyden High School in Salisbury to major in economics at Duke, there was no “home” in front of the “economics.”

“She was never much of a cook,” Jordan said.

At Duke University, Billy (her given name was actually Willa Francis) met and set her romantic sights on Allen Starling Johnson Jr., who became a celebrated football lineman — one of the famous “Iron Dukes” from the 1938 and 1939 teams.

In college, Allen Johnson’s teammates called him “Sweet Pea,” and by his senior year he was an All-America guard.

“For the rest of her life,” Jordan said, “Billy’s blood ran Duke blue.”

After graduating from Duke and working a year for her parents’ companies, Billy Johnson turned her full attention to being a wife and mother. The Johnsons had four children: Allen III, Judy, Kathryn and Joanne.

Billy Johnson might have never uttered a vulgarity, Jordan said. One of her daughters once said “Darn” out loud, and Billy told her, “I hope you’re talking about socks, because that’s the only appropriate use of that word.”

Billy and Allen kept their evenings free for each other, and Billy always wanted to hear about her husband’s work day, even if he weren’t home until 2 a.m. But there was a time, she tired of Allen’s long hours of restoration on a Model A Ford, and he came home one night to find Billy making hotel reservations.

She and the girls were heading to New York for a week, she announced to Allen, and when they returned, the Model A better be finished. It was.

One Christmas, Allen bought Billy a 22-caliber rifle as a gift, which she considered a bit too masculine of a present to receive from her husband. She wouldn’t forget, and the next Christmas she bought and wrapped for Allen a white fur coat. It happened to be exactly her size.

“She had a look about her — dare I call it a stare?” Jordan said. The children and grandchildren knew that stare. Kaklamanos said, “you didn’t want to mess with her.”

Joanne Johnson said her mother was always fair. It wasn’t that she was overly strict, Joanne said, but her mother “had a way of making us want to do the right thing.”

A memory table at First United Methodist Church Thursday was filled with pictures and other Billy Johnson artifacts. There was Allen in his Duke letter sweater and Billy in her wedding dress.

There was a carton of her favorite ice cream: mint chocolate chip, a model replica of the Duke football stadium and several bowls of chocolates that were homemade by daughter Judy.

“She was a firm believer that you start with dessert,” Judy Johnson said, “because life is uncertain.”

Judy keeps the “Blue Devil Express” at her house. There have been two of these old limousines Billy and her family drove to all the Duke home basketball games and some of the football games.

The family had six tickets, and whoever was going piled into the Blue Devil Express, usually driven by Judy.

Billy Johnson seemed to have a built-in appreciation for big cars. For years her favorite mode of transportation was a Buick station wagon. She refused to give it up and became frustrated when replacement parts became harder and harder to find.

Gordon Hurley heard about her dilemma and gave her his Buick station wagon so she would have one for driving and one for parts.

Billy’s personalized license plate said “No. 1 Mimi” — what her grandchildren called her.

Billy Johnson was pretty proficient at knitting and needlepoint. On television, she enjoyed watching old British comedies, such as “Keeping Up Appearances” and “Are You Being Served?”

But she was a particularly rabid fan of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and visiting her around 7 on Saturday nights was a no-no.

Jordan said Billy Johnson seemed to have more best friends than anyone else in Salisbury. One reason was her kindness.

Even though in her last years Billy became quite hard of hearing, she pretended to hear Jordan’s jokes on his visits to the Trinity Oaks Lutheran Home and laughed every time.

Joanne Johnson said her mother might have been perfect. Every decision she made later in life was an effort to make choices easier for her daughters, whether it was deciding when to stop driving or when to stay for good at the nursing home.

But the real measure of Billy Johnson as a mother might have been her caring for son Allen, who dealt with cerebral palsy. Jordan first came to know Billy Johnson when he was a Scout with Allen III.

Allen was a smart, mischievous and fearless kid. On the golf cart he had that was approved as a licensed, motorized vehicle, Allen III had two speeds: full-speed ahead and dead stop.

His parents eventually had to put a governor on the golf cart to restrict Allen’s speed. When he learned of that device, their son marched off in disgust from the dinner table and shouted “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Billy Johnson was a loving mother who did everything to make Allen’s life the best it could be, Jordan said. Allen III died in 1997.

As for Billy’s daughters, Jordan said, they learned from their mother never to live their lives as an imitation of others. The title Billy cherished the most wasn’t boss, Blue Devil or philanthropist.

It was mother. See you later, alligator.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or