Family remembers Natchez centarian

Published 12:27 am Saturday, October 27, 2007

NATCHEZ — Cleve Johnson loved the Mississippi River. He was born near it, lived by it, worked on it and, even at his death, paid it one last visit.

The second oldest of 13 children, William Cleve Johnson Sr. was born April 16, 1905. His parents were farmers, a job he took when he was young, too.

The jobs he had as a young man were with the sheriff’s office and even as a driver for the speaker of the house at the time, John R. Junkin.

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He went on to work as a surveyor’s assistant with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, traveling up and down the Mississippi River.

His daughter Joyce Johnson remembers hearing stories about his travels.

“When the City of Vidalia was moved further inland, he worked on that,” she said. “He worked with dredging the Mississippi River. He worked on the levies in New Orleans. He could tell us so many different stories.”

In his early years with the Corps, he would swing by the Hobo Forks community on his way to New Orleans to pick up a fellow employee — now famous author Richard Wright.

Johnson was one of the first black men in the state to get a driver’s license — his first car was a Model A Ford — and drove until just a few months before he died.

Johnson was well-known throughout the community. He was one of the original members of the Natchez Business and Civic League and a member of the local chapter of the NAACP when it was established in Natchez.

Johnson is also remembered for sharing his wisdom throughout his 102 years, his family members said.

“Daddy never met a stranger,” Joyce Johnson said. “He was always there to offer something, giving a thought about life. Wherever he was, Daddy struck up a conversation with whomever. When he would leave that person, it was like they were old friends.”

If you were to look for him, chances were good you could find him gazing out at the Mississippi River, his grandson Darryl Grennell said.

“My grandfather made a trip down to the river just about every day,” Grennell said. “Even in rainy days, when he wouldn’t be able to get out of the car, he would drive by.”

Johnson was happy to share his knowledge, answering tourists’ questions, Grennell said.

“He probably knew more about the Mississippi River than anybody else,” he said. “He was familiar with all the cuts in the river and how various lakes were created as a result of those cuts.”

Johnson’s long memory served the community well, Grennell said. The Adams County Board of Supervisors, on which Grennell serves as president, consulted him several times.

In contrast with some of his contemporaries, Johnson didn’t miss the “good ol’ days,” Grennell said.

“Quite often over the last several years, he would simply say, ‘It’s a great life,’” Grennell said. “I remember someone asking him if he could go back to the olden days, would he want to. He would say, ‘We’re living in the best days right now compared to the days in which I grew up.’”

Johnson appreciated the technological, medical and social advances the world had made over the years, Grennell said.

Grennell said he never saw his grandfather get overly excited or upset about anything.

“I think those were things that were part of his longevity,” he said. “He didn’t stress himself out like the average person would. He said, ‘The good part about life is the sunshiny days outnumber the stormy days.’”

When Johnson’s days, sunny and stormy, ended Thursday, Oct. 18, he left behind a legacy and five children. He is also the grandfather of state Rep. Robert Johnson.

“After his funeral, they took the hearse by the river before internment,” Grennell said. “He truly loved the river. I think it goes beyond working with the Corps. I believe as a young man he always loved the river.

“His family and the community were truly blessed to have had him. He inspired anybody who came along.”