WARNER ROBINS -- Ann Oliver-Johnson was in her late 20s when former Warner Robins Mayor Ralph Johnson interviewed her in 1976 for a position at the Warner Robins/North Houston County Chamber of Commerce.
“He changed my life,” she said Friday, just before her former boss and mentor’s funeral services. “He challenged me. He encouraged me. He had me do things I never thought I could.”
It’s the way plenty of people describe the former mayor, who was in office from 1984 until 1988. Johnson, 92, died Tuesday after a yearlong illness following a 2010 surgery.
And it’s the reason for a standing bouquet spelling out his nickname “Poppaw” before a half-filled chapel of about 100 people at the Warner Robins First United Methodist Church on Friday morning, where his funeral was held.
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“This boy from Pikeville, Ky., has used his days on Earth well, and we need to celebrate that,” said the Rev. Jimmy Asbell. “One thing we need to celebrate in this city, in this region, is Ralph Johnson’s life of service.”
Missy Blumenthal, the church’s associate pastor, described Johnson much the same way in his personal and professional lives.
Johnson began his career in the Air Force in 1946, spurred by the Pearl Harbor bombing. His assignments included England, Japan, Wisconsin and France, before he landed at Robins Air Force Base as the director of procurement.
In 1974, he married his second wife, Mary Johnson, whom he had befriended on the base. Blumenthal relayed stories from the children of a no-nonsense father and stepfather who instilled discipline and know-how in them.
“We can’t say enough about how much we loved him, and how much we’ll miss him,” said stepson Jim Jernigan. “We would like to thank the city of Warner Robins for the gracious honors that they have bestowed upon us, and Ralph Johnson.”
The Warner Robins Fire Department flew an American flag from a crane in front of the North Davis Drive church Friday, in honor of the one-term mayor. Johnson retired from the Air Force in 1970, and became the vice executive director of the chamber. In 1984, he turned his community service to politics.
As mayor, he is remembered for lobbying for an expansion of the wastewater treatment plant, which allowed water lines to be extended into unincorporated parts of Houston County. Property along those lines was later annexed into the city, lending to Warner Robins’ growth. He also avidly promoted the city’s slogan, “Every Day in Middle Georgia is Air Force Appreciation Day,” now changed to “Every Day in the U.S. of A. is Armed Forces Appreciation Day.”
“It only reflects a few years of his 92 years on this earth, but his work in our community changed our community for the better,” Asbell said.
Throughout the stories the pastors and friends have told this week, Johnson is described as a man with a forceful nudge but a gentle heart. He pushed his children, employees and friends to their personal bests because he believed in them, they said.
Oliver-Johnson said she went to college because he said she could do it.
Alexandra Talley, a former city purchasing agent, learned new skills on the job, because he said she could do it. The city expanded its wastewater treatment plant, because he said it should be done.
“He never asked more of others than he did himself,” Asbell said.
To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.