Johnnie B. Watson

Johnnie B. Watson, LL.D.
LeMoyne-Owen College

by Terre Gorham

I grew up across the street from LeMoyne-Owen College in what was known then as the LeMoyne Gardens housing projects. I loved to walk to the edge of the campus and look at the students. My five sisters and I all looked forward to attending LeMoyne.

I was a sickly child — had a condition known as rheumatic fever. I outgrew it in the third grade, but during the early years of my life, sometimes I'd be so sick, I'd ask Mother and Daddy, "Why are you making me go to school?" Fortunately, I had older sisters who helped me with my lessons, and I was able to pass each grade.

Once I got over that illness, I refused to miss a day of school — even when my grandmother died while I was in high school. I begged Mother to let me go to school that morning before going to the funeral that afternoon.

To live in the projects, parents had to be poor and have a lot of children. We weren't allowed to have pets in the projects, but we played horseshoes. I watched the boys play sandlot baseball — Mother wouldn't let me play because of my rheumatic heart condition. I never did get into sports.

Even though we lived in the projects, I can truthfully say that I never experienced a hungry day. We were poor but didn't know it. A meal for a day might be white beans; on another day, cabbage. Whatever you had for that day, you didn't complain about it. My daddy knew how to provide for his family, and he knew how to hold on to a dollar.

Mother was fiercely protective. Because she would not let me participate in sports, I did a lot of reading, and I think that's what led me to the scholarly endeavor.

Mother was a model homemaker. It was her job to make sure our apartment was clean. Home inspectors would inspect the apartments to make sure they were kept clean, and we always got a "Good Housekeeping" certificate from the inspectors. Mother would be the last to go to bed at night and the first to get up in the morning. Dad worked as a shipping clerk for a paper company, and Mother would have his breakfast prepared and his lunch packed. Every day, he would put on a white shirt and tie to go to work.

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I played school all the time. My second oldest sister wanted me to be an attorney. But after I graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and arrived on this campus, I knew I wanted to teach.

After graduating from LeMoyne-Owen College in 1960 with a B.A. in social sciences, I began teaching Tennessee history to seventh-graders at Carver High School. The happiest day of my life was when I walked into that classroom at Carver. I was promoted to a position in Central Office Administration for Memphis City Schools in 1968 before ultimately becoming deputy superintendent for the school system in 1988.

I went through an interesting period one summer in the '60s, back when I was driving to Indiana University, working on my master's degree. To keep myself alert while driving, I would preach. Many people to this day say I have a preacher-like speaking style. The day I announced my retirement as deputy superintendent of Memphis City Schools in 1992, I thought about going into seminary. But I got a call the next day from the Department of Education chair at Rhodes College, and within two days, I was teaching there and was later appointed Chair of the Department of Education and Distinguished Associate Professor.

One night in the spring of 2000, after the current superintendent of Memphis City Schools abruptly announced her retirement, I got a call from the Board of Education chair. My name was one of three being considered for the open superintendent position. I was unanimously appointed to the role of superintendent of the city schools in 2000, which I served until I retired a second time in 2003. I had simply gotten tired of the politics, and that's all it was.

For the next two years I cared for my sick daughter — she was my stepdaughter, but she was my daughter to me. She's deceased now, but I had those two years to spend time with her, which I cherish.

One of the most touching moments of my life happened in 2006 during my seventh year serving on the Board of Trustees of LeMoyne-Owen College. The college was on probation because of its fiscal instability. Chairman Robert Lipscomb asked me to briefly leave the room, and I said, "Chairman, I know why you're asking me to leave the room, so let me save you all some trouble. This board is a divided board — not along racial lines, but divided over the former leadership. Chairman, if there is any dissension whatsoever, take my name off the list." I hadn't gotten halfway down the hall when a trustee stuck his head out the door and called to me, "We're through; come on back." In that short period, the board had unanimously named me the interim president of LeMoyne-Owen. I felt so happy to back again.

In 2008, I was unanimously appointed to serve as the 11th president of LeMoyne-Owen College. I am where I want to be. While I don't plan to be here forever, right now I know that it's not the time for me to go.

The name "Johnnie" … is my real name, not a nickname. My father's name was John. My middle name is Bennett, and everyone called me Ben until I started college here at LeMoyne. I've been Johnnie ever since.

Going to school was important to me because … it was important to my dad. Dad had, maybe, a sixth-grade education. When I came home from school, I would teach Dad some of the things I had learned. When Daddy loaned money to his coworkers, I taught him how to figure 25 percent interest on the money he loaned. So on Thursday evenings, my job was to spend 30 or 45 minutes with him to make sure his figures were correct. After a couple of months, he had mastered it.

The first books I read … I loved comic books when I was very young — Superman, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie. I found out later in college that once a person develops a habit of reading early in life — no matter what the reading material is — it generally lasts a lifetime.

My biggest challenge when I became president of LeMoyne … We were on probation due to fiscal problems, and I had to raise money quickly to get the college off that probation. So the chairman of the board and I immediately visited the governor, city council, county commission, state legislature, and philanthropic foundations — and within a matter of months, we had the $3 million we needed to keep this college open.

My biggest challenge today … is that the college is up for reaccreditation. We are part of one of the most difficult of all the accrediting agencies — Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. While I feel very secure in where we are, I can't take it for granted.

Historically black colleges are important because … they provide another option for students who want a different type of experience. Most historically black colleges are small; most are also known for nurturing.

The students call me … everything! "Hey, Mr. J.B.!" "Hello, Johnnie B.!" They have heard their <<grandparents>> call me those names. Students come up to me and say, "You know my grandmother!"

The biggest difference I made at Rhodes College … was to provide experiences in public education settings for the students. In every course, I required field experiences. Most of the students I taught at Rhodes were white, many of whom had never been in a public school, had a black professor, or interacted much with black people. I gave them real-life experiences that they'd never had.

When I read for pleasure … I have read every book written by a former president. I like historical biographies.

People may be surprised to learn that I … have a twin sister, Vonnetta. We enrolled in LeMoyne together. She was completely different as a college student than I was. I worked in the library and was on scholarship; her day was not complete until she went to the recreation hall. She loved to play cards.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned growing up … treat everyone with respect and dignity.

My involvement with the Civil Rights Movement … The year I graduated from college, 1960, was the year of the sit-in demonstrations. Some of my close friends who participated did not get teaching positions because they participated. Sometimes I reflect that if there's a void in my life, it's that I took the easy, secure way out during that time — I stood on the sideline. I benefited from those sit-in demonstrations, but I was not an active participant. I knew it could jeopardize my career — or worse. They were very frightening times, and I was determined not to let anything stand in the way of my becoming a teacher.

I met my wife Loretta … about 18 years ago. Interestingly, her daughter graduated high school at the same time that John — my son from my first marriage — graduated from high school!

Mother worked … in private homes as a maid, after we children got a little older. When the home threw a party, we waited up until she got home, because she would bring leftovers from the party, and that was a real treat for us children. Filet mignon was never on our menu at home! That was the way of life back then.

My favorite TV show … The Travel Channel.

My first paying job … was Bond's Variety Store on Person Avenue in South Memphis. I was in the eighth grade. The proprietor took me under his wings, and I worked for him until I graduated from high school. He took me to get my driver's license, and I was then able to deliver furniture for him. Before Christmas, I assembled the toys we'd sell. I'd make the milkshakes. During slow winter months, I ran the store. I learned a variety of things working there.

My parents never … owned a car.

My first car … belonged to my older sister, and she made it available to me. She had become a nurse, working the night shift at the old E.H. Crump Hospital. She taught me how to be a gentleman — if I didn't open the door for her, she wouldn't let me drive her car. When I entered a building, I took my hat off. Now, those were hard lessons! The first car I owned was a black 1948 Dodge.

Wine or beer … Crown Royal and Coke. From the day I became superintendent, however, I stopped drinking in public. People misinterpret, and I never want to do anything that could be misinterpreted. I just have a nightcap at home in the evening.

I owe a debt of gratitude to … Miss Charlie P. Rollin, one of my education professors. She took me under her wings. When I became president of the Future Teachers of America on campus, she would call me the morning of the meeting and say, "Johnnie? Are you awake?" She and I would go over my agenda — to this day, I will not go into a meeting without an agenda! If I were going to be on a program, I'd have to practice before her. As a result, I'm very comfortable appearing before groups.

I am unfailingly … on time — almost to a fault. I want to be at school 45 minutes before classes start.

When the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, I … was in high school. I remember feeling excited that public schools could no longer be segregated. It was also terrifying. We had gotten adjusted to living in a desegregated society, and we didn't know what this integrated world had to offer for us.

One thing I'm not good at is … managing people. It frustrates me greatly when people who are paid to do a job do not adequately do that job. I'm a much better leader than I am a manager.

As a child, an annual tradition was … Mother taking us to the fair. That was a learning experience she wanted her children to have. She would give us a little spending money that she had saved up. My favorite part was the animals. I didn't grow up on a farm, so I thoroughly enjoyed the livestock component.

Growing up, the household chore I hated most … emptying the garbage. But that was really the only household chore I had!

Every Sunday, I … joined my dad in Sunday School — the highlight of Sunday mornings was walking with my dad, carrying his briefcase that held the Sunday School books. Daddy never had a car, and we walked from LeMoyne Gardens housing projects to New Friendship Baptist Church at the corner of Georgia and McKinley. My dad wore a suit and tie to go to Sunday School, and he taught for more than 50 years. I was not required to go to church, but I was required to go to Sunday School.

My favorite subject in high school … mathematics, believe it or not.

From my mother, I got … patience. I don't anger quickly, and when I do anger, it's gone as quickly as it came. Now, Daddy had a bad temper. Growing up in the South, a lot of black people would have been afraid of some of Daddy's actions. He made white people respect him in his home. I was often afraid for my dad because he would literally go off on white people who showed disrespect. He was a very proud man and a strong disciplinarian. I know I got some of my leadership instincts from him.

The public's biggest misperception about historically black colleges … is that we are here only for black students, and that just isn't true.

I refused to … apply for any of the positions I held, except for my first position out of college in 1959, to become a teacher in the Memphis City Schools System. But for whatever reason, jobs came to me after that, and I didn't have to apply. I also don't like to apply for anything because I don't like rejection.

When I'm not being the president of LeMoyne-Owen, I like to … relax at the casino! My wife and I will go down there, eat, take a few dollars, and play slots. It's interesting that when people who know me see me at the casino, sometimes they'll say, "Don't worry! Your secret is safe with me!" I have to just laugh. At this point in my life, I'm not going to do anything illegal, unethical, or immoral. I don't have anything to hide. But it's funny how people hold certain views of their leaders.

It's difficult for me to start the day without … reading the newspaper.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated … that was scary. That was my first year as a supervisor at the Board of Education. A lot of tension. I remember the city closing down and a curfew put on the city. I wouldn't even leave my house to pick up the evening newspaper after it got dark. I was afraid I'd go out and police would mistakenly shoot me.

Of all the awards and honors I've received, the one closest to my heart … is the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree awarded by LeMoyne-Owen College in 2001 for my contributions to education during 43 years.

A board that I especially enjoyed serving … United Way of Greater Memphis was certainly one because I served as chairperson for a while of the Venture Fund, and that was fun — meeting with people to give money away! It was just a fun board to be on.

The part of this job that requires the most stamina … ongoing meetings with people to ensure that the college remains financially secure.

My final 2 cents … I have been very successful and very blessed, and I've accomplished pretty much any career goals I set. People ask me what I want my legacy to be. It would be — and I know I say this all the time — that everybody should treat everybody with respect and dignity.