In my line of work, I have the privilege of meeting lots of interesting people. Every once in a while, I get to meet one (in this case, two) amazing people who have learned to travel their journey with a smile. Up or down, thin or thick, Webster Johnson and his wife Ola have made it through over 70 years of marriage. Their family has grown to include children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. I was honored to meet the Johnsons as well as their daughter Valenda to talk about their life together.
Webster Johnson grew up close to the land where he lives now. Born from a long line of farmers, it was in his blood and something he loved to do. Even though he’s passed on the farming business to his son, Buster, Webster still likes to ride along and give advice when it’s needed. The land the couple lives on now belonged to Ola’s family. In fact, Ola was born on the property in the house her daughter Valenda now calls home.
Both Webster’s and Ola’s families had known each for as long as they could remember, but with him being four years older, he didn’t get to really know Ola until the day after he returned from Europe at the close of World War II. Going to war taught Webster many things about survival, but it also taught him what was important in life. After surviving combat on the front lines and receiving two Battle Stars, he knew he had a purpose. He just wasn’t sure what it was. That is, until he got home.
Within a day of arriving home in 1946, Webster was re-introduced to Miss Ola Coppage. As he walked into the living room of a relative, he noticed this beautiful young woman in a white seersucker dress and her best Sunday shoes sitting in a chair by the door. While he was in Europe, he had dreamt of meeting a young woman in the same type of dress and he knew from the minute he saw her that she was special.
Webster offered Ola, her niece, her aunt and his cousin a ride home in his car. The short ride home gave him time to gather the courage to ask the group to the movies. Of course, they all said yes and eagerly waited for him to return to pick them up. While Ola had strategically placed her niece between her and Webster in the front seat of his car, he had other ideas. After asking his cousin if she would like to drive, they all changed seats with Ola’s niece, her aunt sitting with them in the backseat. Webster had quickly arranged for Ola to be in the middle. It didn’t take long for him to take her hand in his. Ola says, “that was when she knew, he was the one she would marry.”
Over the years, they started a family as Webster began to grow their small farm into a working enterprise where he grew corn, soybeans, and tobacco. In the early days, tobacco was king and going to market was often the highlight of the year. In the 30’s and 40’s, market was the celebration of the year. The community would gather around for the festivities. Farm families from all over Cook County would join in the fun. The Johnson’s were no different. When it came time to go to the Auction, they would pack up their three children and head into town.
As time passed, the Marketplace and Auction changed. Technology took over and farming lost some of its appeal. The same was true for farming. The new equipment designed to make farming easier also made it clear to Webster that it was time to turn the business over to his son who was better able to work with the technology. Digital instruments and hydraulic equipment were a far cry from the team of mules he started with over 50 years ago. Webster went through many changes with his farm and it had grown to be a huge success over the years.
In the fall of 1974, Webster produced one of the largest harvests in all of his years of farming, but he felt something was missing. He just wasn’t happy. According to Webster, “I had run from the Lord a lot, but I knew He would eventually deal with me.” Not long after, he had a long conversation with God about what he needed to do to be happy. Well, God answered, but it wasn’t necessarily the way Webster expected. Instead of sitting quietly in the pews at church, it didn’t take long for Webster to be coaxed into teaching Sunday school. Shortly after that, he became a Deacon. After retiring from farming in 1990, he spent more of his time being active in the Church. He eventually gave up his duties as a Deacon and received his license to preach in 2005 and became ordained in 2015.
As he looks back on his 93 years, he looks at Ola with deep appreciation and gratitude. He said, “ I don’t know where I would be right now, if it wasn’t for that woman right over there.” He pointed to Ola with moist eyes. It’s not very often that you get to glimpse the love and devotion that one person has for another. After 71 years of marriage, the love they have for one another still continues to grow.
From the simple gesture of taking her hand in his, Webster and Ola created a bond that doesn’t need words or fancy flourishes to describe. It’s simple. Where he goes, she will go, and where he stays, she will stay. Even their daughter, Valenda agrees. “He would walk into the kitchen and ask her if she wanted to go to town. Without hesitation, the stove was turned off and she was out the door right behind him.” According to their daughter, the couple never fussed and would always look for ways to be together.
The community of Hahira has asked Webster to be the Honored Citizen for the Hahira Honey Bee Parade of 2018. As a decorated veteran, successful farmer, and lifelong resident of Cook County, Mr. Johnson is well-known and well-loved by those who know him. When you sit in the couple’s living room, you are surrounded by pictures of their ever-growing family. What strikes you the most is the love and comfort you feel when you first enter the room. With a gentle smile and a firm handshake, you get a small glimpse of a man who has worked hard to care for his family and build a life full of joy for his wife. Hahira made a good choice to honor Mr. Webster, a fine example of a hard-working, Christian community member.