Former Music Hall of Fame curator dies at age 57

lbibb@macon.comMay 23, 2012 

Joseph Johnson, former curator of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, is being remembered for his work as a music historian and his enduring friendships.

Lois Johnson, Joseph Johnson’s wife of 35 years, said her husband battled cancer for 15 years before ultimately being diagnosed with leukemia five weeks before his death Monday at the age of 57.

Joseph Johnson was named curator of the music hall in 1994. He had the self-described “fun job” of contacting museum inductees and collecting materials for its archives.

“It was his great honor and privilege to be able to help preserve Georgia music history,” Lois Johnson said.

Fred Gretsch, president of The Gretsch Co., which makes drums and guitars, had a long working relationship with Johnson.

“Joseph was a very energetic person, and his enthusiasm for Georgia music history was infectious,” he said.

Gretsch and his wife set up the Joseph Johnson Scholarship at the University of West Georgia in 2006 to benefit a graduate student in public history or museum studies.

Friends and family said Johnson had an immense impact on anyone he met.

“People who met him once never forgot him,” said Laura Botts, who worked with him for six years as the librarian and archivist for the music hall.

Alan Walden, a local music producer and 2003 inductee into the Hall of Fame, described Johnson as a “remarkable character.”

“If you didn’t like Joseph Johnson, there was something wrong with you,” he said.

Because of his involvement with the hall of fame, Walden had a close professional and personal relationship with Johnson.

Walden said his experience working with Johnson showed him that Johnson treated everyone equally, even the music stars he interacted with.

Johnson never failed to return one of Walden’s phone calls, Walden said, and “you’d save time” by calling Johnson directly because he was the person “who would take care of it in the end.”

Walden said he admired Johnson’s courage during his battle with cancer and was happy to call Johnson a friend.

“He gave real meaning to the word ‘friend,’ ” Walden said.

Dr. Frederick Schnell met Johnson when the curator was first diagnosed with cancer. Schnell treated Johnson for the past decade and a half, and the two became friends.

“Even in times when he was not feeling well ... and there were many ... I don’t think I ever saw him when he wasn’t kind or didn’t have a smile on his face at some point during the visit,” Schnell said.

Johnson, Botts said, had a way of making someone feel like the most important person in the world and “it was genuine.”

“I learned a lot from him about how to treat people,” she said.

Johnson grew up playing the guitar and loved the rock music of his childhood, his wife said. He wrote contemporary Christian music, collected antique instruments and played the guitar, lute and banjo.

He was the father of three children, Sarah Keller, Katie Dempster, and Zachary Johnson, and he had four grandchildren.

Lois Johnson is holding a public memorial service for Johnson on June 16 at 5 p.m. at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Milledgeville.

To contact writer Liz Bibb, call 744-4425.

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