WARNER ROBINS -- For a one-term mayor, Ralph Johnson left a memorable legacy at City Hall. In fact, some employees called him “Papa.”
“He was kind of like a grandfather figure in town,” said City Attorney Jim Elliott, who called Johnson by the nickname. “It’s nice to have that kind of person around who garners that kind of respect.”
Johnson, 92, died Tuesday afternoon after a illness resulting from a surgery last year, said wife Mary Johnson.
Visitation will be held 6-8 p.m. Thursday at McCullough Funeral Home, and the funeral will be 11 a.m. Friday at Warner Robins First United Methodist Church on North Davis Drive.
“He enjoyed being the mayor,” Mary Johnson said of her late husband. “He had a way of working with people that he was able to get cooperation out of people. He was a people person.”
After news of Johnson’s death spread around town, friends and former co-workers recalled the tenure of the strong-willed, yet understanding, city leader who served from 1985 to 1988.
“I served under five mayors, and I’ll tell you this: He (Johnson) was heads above all the rest of them,” said longtime friend Henrietta McIntyre, who served as councilwoman during Johnson’s term. “He was a very strong individual, but he was also a very caring individual.”
Born in Pikeville, Ky., Johnson moved to Warner Robins in 1966, his last move of a 30-year Air Force career. He retired as a colonel in 1970 and immediately took on the role of executive vice president of the Warner Robins/North Houston County Chamber of Commerce. In 1984, he resigned from the chamber to run for mayor of Warner Robins.
In a December 1984 Telegraph article, the writer described Johnson as “calm, jovial and obviously thrilled with his new job” on his first day as mayor.
McIntyre, Elliott, and former purchasing agent Alexandra Talley described him much the same way Wednesday. They added that he was also demanding, in a necessary way.
“He expected an awful lot of me, of things I thought I couldn’t manage,” Talley recalled. “And he said, ‘Yes, you can, and yes, you will.’ ”
Elliott, who was appointed during Johnson’s term, said the former mayor spearheaded efforts that led to much of the city’s growth.
One example was the approval of a $23 million wastewater treatment plant that required a $17 million loan and a rate hike to repay the borrowed funds. The rate increase wasn’t popular, Elliott said, but Johnson knew the system was important to the city’s future.
“It was interesting how he would do things that he knew would be good for the city, but he really didn’t worry about the political implications,” Elliott said.
Elliott attributed much of the city’s expansion over the past 20 years to the wastewater plant extension, which added lines in unincorporated Houston County areas that were annexed later into the city. Since Johnson’s term, the city population has increased from about 46,000 to about 67,000.
Elliott said Johnson’s involvement in the project was indicative of how he took on most acts at City Hall -- with lots of research, meetings and sweets. He said the former mayor insisted on an inclusive atmosphere at City Hall, calling a meeting with anyone that a project or decision affected.
“Those (Girl Scout) cookies were sometimes our dinner for two or three nights a week,” Elliott said, recalling the many evening and Saturday meetings under Johnson.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.