Selmian featured in magazine

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 17, 2004

What a picture the two are &045; father and son &045; walking through the third floor of the Vaughan-Smitherman Museum, where the son was born with a little help from his dad, and where the dad had been hospitalized in years gone by.

Dr. James A. Johnson Jr., a native Selmian, is a world-class medical social scientist. His father, also a lifetime resident, is a retired salesman.

The two are about as close as a father and son could possibly be. The family roots in Selma run deep.

Dr. Johnson was featured in the ongoing series of profiles of Southerners in the February issue of Southern Living now on the newsstands. According to Johnson he was contacted more than a year ago about the feature by a representative of Time-Warner that owns Southern Living and he said yes. In 2003, in separate trips, a photographer for the Birmingham-based magazine came for a photo shoot, and the writer for a daylong interview. Southern Living’s representative told Johnson that they were looking for someone living in the South who had had an impact on the larger world.

Dr. Johnson’s career is fascinating. He grew up in Selma and graduated from Meadowview Christian. He received the B.S. degree from the University of South Alabama, the M.S. degree from Auburn and then completed his work for the Ph.D. degree in the field of medical social science at Florida State University.

These days he is constantly on the move. He has appointments at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston where he lived and worked for 15 years and also on the medical faculty of Central Michigan University. Employed by the World Health Organization, he has offices in Atlanta, at Central Michigan and in Selma. He has a home in Selma’s historic district which he is restoring. He travels the globe extensively, visiting Third World countries where he brings to bear his expertise in the application of medical science to a social context in some of the poorest nations on the Earth. His work involves the development of strategies to improve public health in these nations through medical and social interventions.

He’s a scholar with many publications &045; eight books published, and a ninth coming out this fall by Praeger publishing of New York City on how small and medium-sized cities (such as Selma) can prepare for and survive a bioterrorist attack. Timely book indeed. And he also has more than 100 articles in scholarly journals to his credit.

He has lectured widely, including Oxford University and the University of Dublin, but is most proud of the fact that he has been asked to give a keynote address this spring at Tuskegee University. &uot;That’s really special,&uot; he said.

Johnson operates out of a deeply rooted sense of &uot;call,&uot; in the theological meaning of that word. He’s an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal. His call goes back to his earliest days in Selma. He described his growing-up years here as a &uot;wonderful adventure,&uot; adding that his father’s growing-up years were also an adventure. Johnson says that the life he lived in Selma built into him at an early age the desire to live adventurously as an adult in faraway places.

There seems to be no place on the face of the Earth that he would not like to visit, and many he already has, including such places as Nepal, India, Africa and Europe.

When asked about the demands of such an intense work/travel routine, Johnson said he was &045; and appeared to be &045; relaxed about it all. &uot;As long as I’m in the call,&uot; as he put it, &uot;then the pressure does not get to me. It’s when I try to take on things not part of my central mission that the pressure begins to build up.&uot;

Johnson had a great time recently leading his father and this reporter through the third floor of the &uot;Old Vaughan,&uot; which looks much the way it did when he and his father were residents &045; his father as a 20-year-old recovering from an ulcer, Dr. Johnson as a newborn.

Both had stories to tell. Dr. Johnson showed the table on which he thinks he was born &045; with dad’s help &045; in the delivery room. Then dad recounted a riotously amusing tale of an afternoon escape from a third-floor patient room at age 20 so he could walk downtown to see a movie that he had read about in the paper. He told the nurses on duty he must not be disturbed that particular afternoon.

He dressed himself, made sure the hallways were clear and then hustled himself down the winding wrought-iron stairway to the front porch. Off to the movie he went, ate popcorn and had a soft drink &045; on top of his recovering ulcer &045; and got back into his room without being sighted.

Each of these Selmians is a towering figure in his own right. Seeing them together one can hardly imagine them apart &045; and they are together much of the time &045; almost like brothers. Each calls the other &uot;best friend.&uot; It’s a truly remarkable bond, and beautiful to behold.

No wonder both are pictured in the photo appearing in Southern Living, along with one of Dr. Johnson’s two college-age sons. A third child, Elizabeth, is in the ninth grade at Morgan Academy.