Henry Johnson was in his early 20s when he left his home in western Kentucky on a circuitous route that took him to Indianapolis, Chicago and eventually Minneapolis.
“He was living in the country,” said niece Frances Mays, of Hopkinsville, Ky., “and he decided one day to leave and make a name for himself. He just couldn’t stay and work on the farm.”
Johnson was the oldest of nine children who grew up around Fairview, Ky. Though he never made it past seventh grade, Johnson proved himself to be an industrious worker and a man of great wisdom. And while he never had children of his own, he became a father figure to many in north Minneapolis.
Johnson died Sept. 15 at age 99, having outlived three sisters and five brothers.
“He taught me how to be a man,” said his nephew Paul Hill, of Minneapolis. Hill lived with his uncle during his sophomore and junior years of high school. “He said, ‘Work hard, be a productive citizen and keep your word.’ He was heavy on following through and keeping your word.”
In video interviews Hill made of his uncle, Johnson said he left Kentucky after his mother died. He recalled working as a golf caddie in his youth and earning 35 or 40 cents a round.
“That went a long ways then,” Johnson said.
As he moved northward, Johnson worked in upscale hotel restaurants, saving his twice-monthly paychecks to buy tailor-made suits.
Johnson found his way to Minneapolis in 1953, and within a few years had purchased a small fleet of trucks and refrigerated trailers that he used to deliver fresh food to grocery stores and to haul away garbage dumpsters. The logistics work kept him so busy that he persuaded his brother Paul, the baby of the family, to come to Minnesota to work for him.
Though Johnson left the farm life for good, he craved a rural outpost. He bought 10 acres of land in Anoka, where he raised chickens and grew his own vegetables.
He was an active member of the Freemasons fraternal organization. Later, when he took a job in maintenance with the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, he joined the Local 563 Laborers Union.
The family considered Johnson an entrepreneur and a self-made man.
“We lived in the projects,” Hill said, “but Uncle Henry was not poor. He was constantly working and providing for himself. He never let race be a stumbling block. His thing was: Everyone can make it.”
Hill knew of only one love in his uncle’s life, a woman named Josephine, but she died young and the couple never married.
Fishing was Johnson’s enduring escape. He enjoyed taking nieces, nephews and neighborhood kids with him to fish lakes and rivers around the Twin Cities or the occasional excursion across the border to Canada.
“We used to fish for hours on the lake,” said Hill, who inherited his uncle’s cherished 16-footer with an Evinrude motor. “It was so peaceful. When you grow up in north Minneapolis, you don’t get that chance to get on a lake and get that peace.”
The night before a fishing trip, Johnson cooked fish or chicken to take along and taught his nephew how to get coolers ready.
“He told me so many stories,” Hill said. “He always talked about how important family was. He didn’t have a family. But he had a lot of impact on a lot of kids.”
Services have been held.