By MARINA WATERS
Four candidates vying for the vacant Washington County Commission seat sat in the Jonesborough Justice Center during the commission’s meeting and night of election on Feb. 27. That’s when retired chancellor Richard Johnson won a title he knew held a lot of meaning.
“We had a lot of good candidates,” Johnson said. “I’m very fortunate under all circumstances of the competition to be here. And it says something for the seat that we had four people competing for it. So this seat must have some sort of special meaning.”
But it wasn’t just the position that caught the former judge and lawyer’s eye; Johnson was looking at the big picture and the direction in which the county’s governing body is headed.
“I see some great things happening in the county. We have, I think, one of the best commissions we’ve ever had, people who are genuinely interested and will dive deep into the subject, whatever it may be,” Johnson explained. “That was another reason I decided to run. I like the people. Plus I wanted to be a part of something that was enduring—that was big and enduring.”
Johnson was on the bench as a chancellor for the first district for over 20 years. He also served two terms on the Board of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association and was the president of the local Washington County Bar Association. He’s worked with groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the United Way and the Johnson City Jaycees, but one of the accolades he said he is most proud of is writing the instructions for the Tennessee Human Rights Act.
“I think what my legal background has provided me is I think like a lawyer,” Johnson explained. “I can think analytically. And also, not as a lawyer but as a judge, I had the opportunity to come in contact with all kinds of different kinds of people. I think that has helped me a lot. I haven’t been within a segment or one group. My experience is more spread out over the population. Working with people. Trying to resolve differences.”
And now the newest Washington County Commissioner is ready to roll up his sleeves and involve himself with everything from committee work to studying up on the latest issues, including the water projects that are soon to break ground in the county.
“I was also astounded to find that we had very few water lines in the county. Obviously one runs to the industrial park and also into the commercial parks of Jonesborough, but out in the county, if we lay a line, we buy the water either from Kingsport or from Johnson City,” Johnson said. “I think providing water to those who want it and need it, that should be done. The only problem we have is, we have to have kind of a neighborhood. We can’t run a line 10 miles for one house. We have to have so many houses per mile for it to work. Right now we have three water projects going on. And we have the number of houses required.”
Education is also at the forefront for Johnson.
“The county has a lot going for it, particularly with education,” Johnson said. “I’ve found that our students in the county are doing exceptionally well on the ACT and we have many students who are ready for the advanced classes like what a magnet school would offer. The facilities part as well as the teaching part of education, I’m interested in. The better our students are prepared, if they stay here, the better off everybody will be and the better they will be.”
Johnson’s understands a school system’s effect on a student’s success; after two high school teachers suggested he look into becoming a lawyer following a debate Johnson particpated in—he saw the extent to which good, quality teachers can inspire and motivate students.
“This is kind of unbelievable. In the 9th grade I took a class on civics. The teacher’s name was Beatrice Haygood—I’ll never forget her. And Mrs. Haygood asked me to stay after class. And she said, ‘Richard you did a real good job. You ought to be a lawyer. And I want you to think about that.’ And I did.
“Those two teachers stayed after me through high school and even followed me in college to see if I was pursuing law. Of course I heard from both of them when I was in law school…So two public school teachers got my head turned in that direction and encouraged me and told me I could do it.”
A key tie-in to his interest in education is creating jobs and an area that will hold steady job opportunities for students coming out of the school.
“It’s my understanding that the student population, not only in Washington County but in Johnson City, is declining. Why? There’s an out migration of people that leave here when they get their education and go somewhere else. I just talked to a young lady who is getting ready to graduate from ETSU to be a CPA. I said, ‘Great, what firm are you going with in Johnson City?” And she said, ‘Oh I’m going to Nashville.’”
“So I think as we grow and as time goes along, we will have more to offer young people in the way of more jobs—more well-paying jobs. Which will make them want to stay here.”
There was a time that a young Johnson considered leaving the area, much like today’s graduates. After graduating from East Tennessee State University (where he studied economics and history) as well as law school at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, he considered becoming a labor lawyer and headed to Atlanta to interview with the National Labor Board.
“It took me an hour and a half to get out of Atlanta. And all the way home I thought about, ‘Do I want to be in a traffic jam the rest of my life?’ Labor lawyers have to go to big cities. And I guess you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the county out of the boy. So I came back home and decided to forget all the labor law. I didn’t want to be in a traffic jam the rest of my life.”
After coming back to Washington County, becoming a lawyer and later a judge in the state of Tennessee, Johnson is ready for his new role to better his community and home—and it’s a role he doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s a responsibility. It’s a responsibility,” Johnson said. “You want to leave it better than you found it. And I’m confident this commission, not just me, will leave it better than we found it.”