Persistence was one of George’s hallmarks, and it landed him the greatest deal of his life: Janet. Although they first met at UNC in 1955, he and Janet remained friends and met up again in Atlanta where they were both working. In 1959, she realized that he was her soulmate. She agreed to become Janet Johnson Johnson, and to forever explain that, yes, her last name was originally Johnson, too.
Although a full foot taller than Janet, George knew where the quiet power lay and relied on her greatly, always appreciating her contribution to their partnership: she had not come from a line of shrinking violets. Janet introduced him to the openness of the Trinity Presbyterian Church, their community-active church home for over 50 years. She managed the household, and when a friend asked Beth if her daddy had a screwdriver they could borrow, she replied, “No, but my mama does.” George was many things, but not a handyman.
In 1974, George was introduced to Neil Shorthouse and Bill Milliken and their work with students in Atlanta’s inner city, founders of what would eventually become Communities in Schools (CIS), the nation’s largest K-12 stay-in-school/dropout-prevention network. This pivotal meeting galvanized George’s giving and fundraising, and renewed his love of Atlanta. He realized that by helping raise money for their program and connecting them with Atlanta business leaders, he could help make a significant contribution to his hometown. More than 40 years later, in 2020, George reflected, “I probably feel the best about my contributions to CIS. We started with 82 kids in Atlanta and now serve 1.6 million students in 25 states and D.C.”
Along with promoting and supporting CIS, George viewed his most satisfying achievements as co-chairing capital campaigns for Trinity Presbyterian Church, Darlington School, and the Atlanta campaign for UNC, as well as his participation in Leadership Atlanta. At Trinity, George also served as an elder and on the Senior Pastor Search Committee.
Through the years, George served on boards that meant so much to him. They included those of Exodus/Cities in Schools Atlanta, Communities in Schools of Atlanta, Communities in Schools (national), The Patch at Cabbagetown, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta (Chairman), The Carter Center Board of Councilors, Darlington School, UNC–Chapel Hill Institute for the Arts & Humanities, UNC–Chapel Hill Endowment Fund, UNC–Kenan Flagler Business School.
At the 1989 Washington Charities Dinner, George was presented with the U.S. Presidential Award in recognition of his contribution to youth. Two years later, he received the Darlington School Distinguished Alumnus Award. And in what would be a seminal moment in any sports lover’s life, he served as an Olympic torchbearer for the 1996 Centennial Games in Atlanta. In 1998, he received UNC’s William Richardson Davie Award for distinguished service to the university.
In 2007, in “homage to Mr. Johnson, one of the Institute’s great ambassadors,” UNC–Chapel Hill created the biennial George H. Johnson Prize for Distinguished Achievement by an Institute of Arts and Humanities Fellow. In 2014, in recognition of his work as co-chair of the successful five-year-long Second Century Campaign, Darlington honored him in the naming of the Johnson-Drummond Amphitheater.
George received the Ann Cox Chambers Champion for Kids Award in May 2016 in recognition of his decades of work on behalf of Communities in Schools. The dinner, which featured the graduation of that year’s Atlanta students, included speeches and a video montage of accolades by those who knew George well. Later that evening, feeling emotional and thankful for all their kind words, he said, “It is almost like being here for my own memorial service.”
“Joy” was George’s favorite word. He exemplified it by living life to the fullest, by giving back to family, friends and community, by treasuring old friends, and by making new and often lasting ones everywhere he went. Consistently described as generous, optimistic, and a kind Southern gentleman, George loved nothing more than telling a good story, and he had an uncanny ability for getting others to share theirs.
George was known for his love of sports (generally), baseball and college basketball (specifically), and UNC basketball (fanatically). He even made UNC fans of his grandchildren in Boulder, watching many games on TV while sharing Dr Peppers and homemade popcorn. He cherished family gatherings and long walks at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., spending time with relatives on both sides of their extended families. He loved bluegrass music and Braves baseball, screen porches and good books, peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, fried shrimp and grits, and his mother’s spice cake with ice cream. On his last day, George listened to songs by his favorite, Anita Carter, and others by Allison Krause, Bill Monroe, and Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs.
He was preceded in death by his parents, daughter Frances Elizabeth (Beth) Johnson and brother Henry C. Johnson Jr. He is survived by his beloved wife, Janet, daughter Jennifer Johnson (John Rippel), son Parker Johnson (Ashley) and their three children, Bodie, Aria and Tallulah. He is also survived by his sister, Ruth Johnson Lane; sisters-in-law Dot Johnson Booth and Alice Fletcher Johnson; and many nieces and nephews.
George would be delighted if, in honor of his memory, you would strike up a conversation with a stranger today and bring the world a little closer. If you would like to make a memorial gift, please consider either of the two nonprofits that meant so much to him. Both were founded by Bill Milliken and Neil Shorthouse, dear friends of his for nearly half a century: Communities in Schools, communitiesinschools.org, and Partners in Change, www.partnersinchangeusa.org (free life coaching for lower-income adults to enable personal, and social and upward economic mobility). The family is planning a memorial service in Atlanta at a later date.
Read the AJC obituary for George Johnson, early supporter of Communities in Schools
Sign the guestbook at Legacy.com
View the obituary on Legacy.com