Looking Back at Garlon Johnson…
Garlon Johnson, the youngest of two children, born to Lethel Locke Johnson, a local seamstress, and Grady Johnson, an employee of the G M & O Railroad, was born on March 23, 1922. He was reared in the North Selmer area and has never lived more than one half mile from this original birthplace.
He attended the public schools of Selmer. His early education began in the era of the Rosenwald Schools that comprised grades one through eight with only three teachers. Later, the county added ninth and tenth grades. The school’s name was changed to Selmer Junior High School. During this time there was no senior High School in McNairy County for African Americans.
He went to Lexington, Tennesse and enrolled at Montgomery High School. In 1939, the first Senior High School was opened in South McNairy County with A. E. Gray as principal. In 1940, William E. Ledbetter became principal of the school. Garlon then returned to his native home in 1939 and enrolled at the High School, continued his education, and was a member of the first graduating class of 1941 comprised of nine graduates—six boys and three girls. Garlon graduated as Salutatorian, Historian, and Co-Captain of the basketball team of his class and went on to Mary Holmes Seminary in West Point, Mississippi in 1942 to further his education.
Called to active duty in the United States Army in 1942, he was in camp at the following training centers: Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Aberdeen Maryland, and Kelly Field, Carrollton, Texas. Foreign duty abroad included North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany. He received an honorable discharge in 1945 at Camp Atterbury, in Edinburgh, Indiana with the rank of Sergeant —t/4.He was in the battles and campaigns at Naples Foggia, Rome Arno, North Apennines, Rhineland, South France, and Central Europe. He received as decorations and citations the EAME Ribbon six Bronze Stars, the Good Conduct Ribbon, and Victory Medal in World War II.
After the war, he went on to graduate from Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee in 1949 with Cum Laude honors, and with a Bachelor of Science Degree with emphasis on Social Science and Spanish. He also earned endorsements in Elementary Education, Physical Education, Drivers Education, Health Education, and World History. During his years at Lane College, he was active in the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Young Men’s Christian Association, Social Science Club, Beta Kappa Chi Honor Society, Pan Hellenic Council, Spanish Club, and received the honor of Who’s Who Among American Colleges and Universities. In 1966, he earned a Master of Science Degree with emphasis on Guidance and Supervision from Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Garlon was an active member of the former Willis Chapel CME Church in Selmer for more than 50 years. He served in many capacities—Steward Board ten years; Sunday school Superintendent 20 years; Church Clerk 30 years; and Sunday school Teacher 20 years. In the Jackson District CME Church, he served as District Lay Leader; District Sunday school Superintendent; and an important figure in the political arena and voter registration.
His successful educational career included experience as a teacher, coach, guidance counselor, and consultant. He began his teaching career at St. Rest Elementary School that comprised grades fifth through eighth in 1950. Additionally, from 1950-1965 he was a teacher, coach, and guidance counselor at McNairy County High School. He taught Spanish and was guidance counselor at Dunbar High School in Savannah, Tennessee from 1965-1966, and he taught physical education at Selmer Elementary School during the years 1966-1969. He completed his education career at McNairy Central High School as guidance counselor form 1969-1983. He retired from the McNairy County School System with 33 years of service.
In 1984 he began a second career as Youth Service Officer of the McNairy County Juvenile Court under General Sessions Judge, Attorney Paul Simpson. He served in this capacity until 1992. In 1992, Garlon served full time as the Director of Special Projects at the McNairy County High School Alumni Center from 1997-2002.
Garlon was active in civic concerns of McNairy County serving on the McNairy County Chamber of Commerce, Livability Committee, McNairy County High School Alumni Association—Charter Member, Lions Club International, McNairy County Soil Conservation District Board of Supervisors, McNairy County Mental Health Committee, McNairy County Commissioner—Fourth District, City Alderman, McNairy County Education Association President, McNairy County Crime Stoppers Association Board of Directors, McNairy County Retired Teachers Treasurer, Selmer Senior Citizens Past Chairman Board of Directors, McNairy County Draft Board #59 Board Member, United Negro College Fund Drive—McNairy County Coordinator, Lane College Alumni Association, Tennessee Education Association Retirement Committee, Worshipful Master Crescent Lodge #70 P.H.A. - Selmer F&AM State of Tennessee, Order of Eastern Star—Mayflower Chapter #23 Worth Patron, Southwest Tennessee Development District Executive Committee, Prospect Annex Cemetery Association President, West Tennessee Education Association, National Education Association, Girls Basketball Coach McNairy County High School, and son of the Golden Circle.
Garlon received many awards for his years of service: McNairy County Education Association Award—Outstanding Service; Lane College Award—Political Affairs; McNairy County Education Association Award—33 years service; US Air Force Recruiting Award—outstanding contribution to the mission; Honorary Sergeant at Arms of the Tennessee House of Representatives—appointed by the late Honorable Ned McWherter—outstanding service to the state and extraordinary interest in governmental affairs; Lane College Distinguished Service Award—Volunteer Service; Lions Club Certificate of Service; Bridge Builder’s Award for making a difference in the lives of others; McNairy County Citizen of the Year 2005, and in May of 2005 the Selmer Elementary Gymnasium was named in his honor.
Garlon was married to Mary Lou Smith Johnson, his beloved wife of 55 years, who preceded him in death in 2014. Also preceding him in death were his parents Lethel Locke Johnson (1978) and Grady Johnson (1944), a sister, Mrs. Mary Anna Grayson Cox (2014), and a niece, Mrs. Linda Grayson Jones (2019). To treasure his memory he leaves behind a devoted daughter, Dr. Teresa Johnson, four loving nieces, Mrs. Lethel Brown (Duffie), Mrs. Sheila Stephenson, Mrs. Edna Copeland (Roy), and Ms. Cynthia Grayson, and a host of other family and friends.
Garlon enjoyed traveling, gardening, and collecting guns; however his main goal in life was to work and live a serviceable life in his community, hometown, and county; to promote, encourage, guide and develop McNairy County’s “greatest natural resources”—children and youth; to communicate effectively in all aspects of his community, and make it a better place to live. His motto for life was “We shall pass this way but once. Whatever good things we can do, or whatever services we can render to mankind, let us do them. Let us not defer, neglect or put them off. We shall not pass this way again.”
In lieu of flowers, it is requested that family and friends find a service or cause to support, such as Alzheimer’s Association, Veterans’ causes (disabled and paralyzed), American Heart Association, United Negro College Fund, Boys Town, Church Missions, Order of Fraternal Police, etc.