One of the most influential figures in Charlotte’s safety net for troubled families died Saturday at his Charlotte home after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Jim Johnson, 78, had worked with Charlotte’s United Family Services – now Safe Alliance – for 27 years, including 12 years as associate director and 13 years as executive director.
His funeral will be July 27 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
During Johnson’s tenure at Safe Alliance, the agency went from a budget of $500,000 to $5.4 million and expanded from three counseling programs to a wide range of services, from victim assistance to a domestic violence shelter. UFS was even home to the city’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program for a time.
“He was a great collaborator. That’s the reason there was such growth,” says Jane Taylor, a coordinator with the domestic violence shelter at Safe Alliance.
“He seemed to know everybody and could pull people together and get things done.”
Friends describe Johnson as a “funny little man,” standing 5-foot-6 with a head of tousled gray hair and wild, bushy eyebrows. He was also well known as an avid runner and cyclist.
In his pre-retirement years, Johnson was often spotted smoking a pipe, though that did not stop him from instituting a no-smoking policy at the United Family Services offices, recalled Sharon Jarrett Thacker, who worked there with Johnson.
“He liked the idea of United Family Services being an incubator of new programs and new ideas,” Thacker says. “He was progressive for his time, and don’t we need those people?
“He used to say: ‘Give us two weeks and we’ll be the experts at something.’ ”
Johnson, a father of three, retired in 1999 at age 65. But he kept busy as a volunteer with his wife of 40 years, Edith, at the Urban Ministry Center. There, he counseled the homeless until cancer took his larynx. After that, he began sorting the hundreds of pieces of mail the agency receives each day for homeless people who live without permanent addresses.
Paul Hanneman of the Urban Ministry Center says Johnson was there as recently as a month ago, volunteering alongside Edith, a retired teacher who earned the nickname “Clorox” because of her work cleaning restrooms at the ministry.
“He had a little keyboard and a little speaker that he would use to speak after cancer took his voice box, and he was a one-finger typer,” Hanneman says. “There were long pauses (between words), but his sense of humor still came through. He was a strong man.”
Before joining United Family Services in 1972 as a family counselor, Johnson had been a Moravian minister. A native of Winston-Salem, he attended Moravian College and Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa. He came to Charlotte in the summer of 1958 as a student intern and then returned the following year to stay.
For 13 years, he was associate pastor and then senior pastor of the Little Church on the Lane in Charlotte. Johnson told the Observer in a 1999 story that he didn’t leave the ministry because of a lack of love for the job. “I went to really concentrate on the piece of what I liked most – the counseling piece.”
Johnson also swore at the time that he was Charlotte’s luckiest man.
“I have all these wonderful people around me who make me look good, and then I take all the credit,” he said.
“Jim touched the lives of thousands of people in Charlotte,” she says. “I was the lucky one. We were all so ... lucky to have him in our lives.”
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