For about 40 years, Thomas A. Johnson was a dedicated member of Calvary Baptist Church in Haverhill. He was a deacon and trustee, and served on the pastoral, nominating, and rebuilding committees.
Church members knew they could count on him for encouraging words and assistance in times of need. His benevolence was never more evident than it was in 1977, when he took out a second mortgage on his home to help provide funds for the church to rebuild after a devastating fire.
“Tom was a loving, caring man with a big heart for the community,” said Kalister Green-Byrd of Haverhill, a longtime friend and church member. “His door was always open to anyone who needed help. Tom was a very strong Christian and an officer and a deacon who led by example through his teaching and sharing. He talked the talk and walked the walk. Altruism was a way of life for him.”
Mr. Johnson, who also was very active with the Merrimack Valley branch of the NAACP, serving as president from 1990 to 1996, died of cardiopulmonary failure April 9 in Penacook Place nursing home in Haverhill. He was 84 and lived in Haverhill.
“When you met Mr. Johnson you felt like you’d known him all of your life,” said Lisa D. Riddick of Lawrence, a past president of the Merrimack Valley branch of the NAACP. “He had a big heart and was such a wonderful person. To know him has been a blessing.”
Riddick was branch secretary when Mr. Johnson served as president.
“I had just graduated from college when he was president,” she said, “and he was an effective leader who listened to all ideas and thoughts that were presented at meetings, and encouraged participation at all levels.”
Riddick said that during Mr. Johnson’s tenure there was an active youth council “and most of the young people went on to college and are active in the education field or the ministry. Mr. Johnson will be greatly missed by the NAACP because there isn’t another like him.”
Mr. Johnson, she added, was strong, courageous, dedicated, and generous.
“Everything he did for his family, his church, the NAACP, and the community embodied all of those words,” Riddick said. “There are people that will come into your life and change it and have a lasting effect, and that is what Mr. Johnson did for me. No matter what I do or where I go, I will always remember his lessons. He was my mentor.”
Born in Cleveland, Mr. Johnson graduated from East Technical High School, where he specialized in printing while working on school printing jobs and for the student newspaper.
After graduation, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and then served in the Navy aboard the USS Salem from 1950 to 1952.
He met Esther Stevens-Broadnax in Boston while on shore leave and after a brief courtship they married in 1951.
Their only child, Deborah E. Avery of Haverhill, said their marriage was inspiring.
‘Altruism was a way of life for him.’ — Kalister Green-Byrd, longtime friend
“They functioned as one unit,” she said. “They were each other’s best friend. Sometimes their repartee sounded like an episode of ‘The Bickersons,’ and sometimes they didn’t have to speak at all.”
Mrs. Johnson died in 2004, and their daughter said that at Mr. Johnson’s funeral, “all of the young men who spoke said watching him with my mother, and especially witnessing how he took care of her after she became ill, was a lesson in how to be a good husband. For all of us, they were a lesson on the true meaning of marriage.”
A few years after Mr. Johnson left the military, he was hired by the Globe, a job his daughter said he coveted.
“During a time when many of the black men in my family and community worked factory jobs, he got hired to work in the newspaper’s pressroom,” she said.
Mr. Johnson, she said, initially couldn’t get a typographical union job in Massachusetts, and had been commuting every week to Albany, N.Y. The Globe job, she added, “made a big change in our family life.”
The Rev. Roger A. Sawtelle, vice president of the Merrimack NAACP branch, said Mr. Johnson helped integrate the Globe pressroom.
Sawtelle was president of the Merrimack NAACP when Mr. Johnson received the Bennie Armstrong Award for Business and Community Betterment in January 2012.
“He was a nice person and a leader,” Sawtelle said. “His best qualities were his passion and his dependability.”
Mr. Johnson worked at the Globe for many years and later worked for the Addison-Wesley publishing company and the Revere Journal.
At 50, he enrolled in college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in vocational education in 1984 and with a master’s in education in 1989, both from what is now Fitchburg State University.
Mr. Johnson began a second career teaching in Boston public schools, and after retiring kept working as a substitute teacher in Boston and at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill.
“He loved his job,” his daughter said. “In teaching he found his true vocation.”
Along with his church and the NAACP, Mr. Johnson was active with the Kiwanis Club, the Black Ecumenical Commission of Massachusetts, and the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks.
Mr. Johnson’s daughter said her fondest childhood memory is when he took her to see the Beatles at Suffolk Downs as a 13th birthday present. Her most embarrassing moment, she added, happened when she was 16 and “he came onto the dance floor at a Catholic Youth Organization dance and dragged me off because I wasn’t waiting for him outside at 10 p.m., like I was supposed to be.”
A service has been held for Mr. Johnson, who in addition to his daughter, leaves a sister, Margaret Johnson Adams of Pineville, N.C.; a granddaughter; and a friend to whom he was close, Josephine L. Brown of Boston.
“Tom knew what he endured in his life, and he wanted others to have it easier than he did,” said J. Jesse Medley, a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church. “He was humble but willing to share his story, a leader who cared about people.”Laurie D. Willis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.