James Brown and Mike Tyson used to telephone her house.
Motown founder Berry Gordy sent huge bouquets at Christmas.
Duke Ellington was a friend. Eartha Kitt played with her kids.
It really didn’t impress Naomi Johnson. She had to get lesson plans ready to teach school the next day.
Mrs. Johnson, 91, who had cancer, died Friday while in home hospice care in Hyde Park.
“Nemi” taught school in Chicago for more than 30 years while married to one of the most prominent African-American journalists in the world: Robert E. Johnson, executive editor and associate publisher of Jet, a bite-sized, weekly version of its monthly sister publication, Ebony. Comedian Redd Foxx was said to have christened Jet “the Negro Bible.”
A friend and classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College, Mrs. Johnson’s husband covered the Montgomery bus boycott and many landmarks of the civil rights struggle, including the lynching of Emmett Till. He visited the White House and traveled to Russia with President Richard Nixon and to Africa with Andrew Young, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Mrs. Johnson and her husband “definitely worked as a team,” said their son Robert E. Johnson III.
She had her own achievements, encouraged by an entrepreneur mother who operated a laundromat and a stepfather who told her that education was the way to rise in the world. She was the first in her family to go to college.
Mrs. Johnson was born in Laurel, Mississippi. Because her skin was darker than that of her light-complected mother, people sometimes assumed they weren’t related. When her mother boarded the bus with her, “They would say, ‘You sit in the front, send her [Nemi] to the back,'” said her grandson Cole Johnson-Vinion, “and my great-grandmother would say, ‘No, this is my daughter.'”
“That was impressed upon my grandmother, who she was and where she came from –– and to be proud,” her grandson said.
While studying education at Spelman College, she saw Robert E. Johnson, a returning Navy man who’d been stationed in the Pacific. He was an editor at the Morehouse student newspaper, the Maroon Tiger. He saw journalism as a way to improve the world and the lives of African-Americans.
“She thought he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen,” their grandson said. She stationed herself outside a dorm when she knew he’d be passing by. “She got his attention and they fell in love.”
He started his journalism career at the Atlanta Daily World. John H. Johnson brought him to Chicago in 1953 to join his publishing empire. Naomi and Robert Johnson lived in the Lake Meadows Apartments before settling in Hyde Park.
Mrs. Johnson worked at the Howalton Day School, described as the city’s first private African-American school. She also taught at Mayo grade school.
James Jackson, who now advises students at Robert Morris University, says she helped inspire him to finish college. Twenty-eight years ago, she was his fourth-grade teacher at Mayo School. “We just had a connection,” he said. “I loved to listen to her talk, her wisdom and all her experiences.” At Robert Morris, “I try my best to build relationships, like Mrs. Johnson did with me.”
She had lifelong friends from Spelman. And she was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha and African-American social and charitable groups including the Carousels and the Moles, her son said.
Mrs. Johnson collected egg figurines and loved reading the works of Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Claude McKay. Her son said her favorite poem was the Joyce Kilmer standard “Trees,” which begins: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”
Almost every day, she loved to wear a little leopard print, her grandson said. In her later years, he said, “She had leopard-print canes.”
Mrs. Johnson was unfailingly poised while accompanying her husband as they met with some of the world’s most accomplished people. “She just knew how to make people feel at home,” according to her grandson.
But there was one person he said left her a bit tongue-tied: “I think the only time she was starstruck is when she met Denzel Washington.”
Her husband was the top editor at Jet when he died in 1995. Her daughter Janet Johnson Grant died in the 2003 fire at the Cook County Administration building at 69 W. Washington. A granddaughter, Chloe Johnson-Vinion, also died before her. In addition to her son and grandson, Mrs. Johnson is survived by her daughter Bobbye Johnson, granddaughters Endia A. Williams and Elizabeth Johnson, and Lucia Dupard, whom she considered a daughter. A memorial service is to begin at 3 p.m. on Oct. 21 at University Church, 5655 S. University Ave.