Thousands line streets to say goodbye to Johnson

Viewing held at office for creator of `Ebony,' `Jet'

August 15, 2005|By Jason George | Jason George,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - For Lester Howell, 54, John H. Johnson's life meant that even he could shake poverty.

For Katie Brown, 64, it showed that an employer can stop and say hello, no matter how many rungs up the corporate ladder he has climbed.

And for Shemari Wilcoxon, 16, it was living history.

Business leaders and media giants paid their respects yesterday to the Chicagoan and creator of Ebony and Jet magazines, but it was the hundreds, if not thousands, of everyday people who waited up to an hour and lined Michigan Avenue at Johnson Publishing Co. headquarters to say goodbye. Johnson, 87, died Aug. 8 of a heart attack.

With gray-gloved honor guards, the visitation appeared nothing short of a state funeral - an appropriate comparison for a man who created his own empire that circumvented long-established barriers in society. Wearing his characteristic Ebony Red tie, Johnson's body was in a casket draped and surrounded by 1,500 red roses. It sat strikingly on the buffed travertine lobby floor of Johnson Publishing, the headquarters of Johnson's domain that extended beyond television and print media into cosmetics and fashion.

Howell arrived at 10:30 a.m. yesterday, early enough to make him the first person in line for the 2-to-7 p.m. public visitation. As he sketched a pencil portrait of Johnson, Howell told of how the man from Arkansas City, Ark., became a driving force in his life.

Born in a house on Chicago Avenue in 1951, Howell grew up in the Cabrini-Green public housing complex as the son of a truck driver who made the same South-to-Chicago Great Migration that Johnson did with his mother in the 1930s.

"I thought it was real wonderful what he did for us as a people. He gave us the idea that you can do something," he said. "We've got lawyers out of Cabrini-Green. We've got men in the Navy in charge of big ships."

Howell and others streamed through the lobby, circling Johnson's casket and signing guest books.

Besides the roses on the casket, huge floral arrangements from celebrities and civic leaders lined the walls. There were roses from boxing promoter Don King. There was a mixed bouquet from Mayor Richard M. Daley and his wife. The United Negro College Fund's Chicago office had sent another.

The Ebony Fashion Fair, "the world's largest traveling fashion show," started by the Johnsons in 1958, has donated more than $51 million to the college fund and other charities. Johnson's wife, Eunice Walker Johnson, has produced and directed the show. The couple was married in 1941.

The seemingly endless stream of mourners was halted briefly for readings and prayers from about 60 members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., which Johnson became a member of in 1938 while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

Katie Brown spent nearly 26 years working for Johnson as a security guard and chief of security at Johnson Publishing.

"I used to get the Jet magazine when I was younger, and I dreamed of working here one day and it happened," she said.

Wilcoxon said Ebony and Jet remain relevant. She came to the viewing with her mother, Greshenka Weatherspoon, 40, and her mother's friend Jesse Sturdivant, 41.

"John Johnson was a pioneer, particularly in the black community," Sturdivant said. "And today is something that we wanted to be a part of."

David Wischnowsky of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this article. The Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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