Johnson Made Impact on Many

Educator, journalist remembered

By Cheril Vernon

Messenger Copy Editor

GRAPELAND – When I go back and look at the poignant lyrics he included at the beginning of his “goodbye” column in The Messenger in July 2022 when he left to take a teaching job at Grapeland Independent School District, former Messenger reporter William “Will” James Johnson quoted REO Speedwagon: “It hurts to say goodbye, but it’s time for me to fly.”

Those words hit me like a brick when I went back and read them this week as I prepared to write a column about my good friend and former co-worker, who passed away on Saturday, Feb. 24 at the age of 60. And even though it brings me to tears, it also makes me smile, because there was one thing that Will loved to incorporate into a story he was writing somehow – and that was music lyrics. So, I know he is smiling down from heaven, saying, “Cheril, I told you I would work it in there!”

Johnson will be remembered for many things in Houston County – particularly as an educator, where he had returned to teaching at Grapeland ISD – his old stomping grounds – as a history, government and economics teacher the last few years. 

Grapeland ISD will release school early on the elementary, junior high and high school campuses at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 29 to allow staff and students to attend Johnson’s services.

Services will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 29 at Grapeland ISD’s Lorena Schoultz Auditorium, 116 W. Myrtle St. with Dr. Don Jackson officiating. Following the service, the family will have a private internment at Davis Cemetery. 

Grapeland ISD Superintendent Dr. David Maass said Will loved teaching social studies.

“It was just something he really liked. He had some health issues this year, but we were looking forward to having him back, so this was a real shock to us. We had counselors on campus and several students did speak with them about Mr. Johnson,” Maass said. “When you spend most of the year with someone, you become like family and it affects everyone. We will have an early release Thursday for the funeral, as several students and teachers wanted to attend.”

A graduate of Grapeland High School – Will was a Sandie through and through and his love for his hometown was immense. He enjoyed following the Sandies and Sandiettes in the various sports.

Former Latexo Independent School District Principal Kim Watson was Will’s former debate partner growing up.
“Will was my debate partner, neighbor, and friend. He was so intelligent and witty! I’m glad he spent his time as an educator because he had so much to offer. My husband Joe loves to recount how Will would talk ‘trash’ to their opponents on the line in football. He was always so much fun squabbling over our favorite football teams with too. He was a great human being. We will cherish the good times we shared growing up with Will,” Watson wrote on a memorial page for Will.

After high school, Will earned a master’s degree and graduated from both Troy University and Texas A&M University and let everyone know he was an Aggie. 

He also served in the U.S. Army during the Gulf War and was a proud veteran. 

His friend Jerry Smith recalled serving in the Army with Will, stationed in Ansbach Germany with the 141st Signal Battalion. 

Smith wrote on the memorial page: “My deepest memories are from our time being together in Desert Storm. Will and I were part of a group of eight soldiers who were attached to another unit during the war. The eight of us were together 24/7 during the entire war. Being a time before the internet and cell phones, we all spent countless hours talking and supporting each other. I don’t think Will ever had one bad day out there. His smile and dedication to his soldiers and the mission made him an incredible asset to us as a group and the Army in general. It was my honor to have known Will and to serve with him in peace time and war time. Rest in Peace my friend.”

Another Army veteran friend Thomas Serrano first met Will in May of 1989 in Ansbach, Germany.

“He would later be my Team Chief for the first Gulf War. We spent much time in the field and in the rear together and got to know each other very well. He will be greatly missed those of us that served with him,” Serrano wrote. 

Will also was known for serving in the community with the Grapeland Noon Lions Club over the years. 

“I knew Will for so many years; I knew his mother well, she was a school teacher, too. Will worked for my husband and I when he was in high school, delivering furniture. I always joked he was always an old man and never got mixed up in the antics of the other kids,” said Martha Childress with the Grapeland Noon Lions Club. “He was all about business, but could be funny, too. Whatever the Lions asked of him, he got it done. He was a treat and took such good care of his mother when she was sick.”

For many, Will was known as The Messenger’s reporter for many years. According to his last column, he had worked for The Messenger for nearly 12 years up until the end of July 2022, writing just a little under 10,000 articles. Let those numbers sink in for you ….10,000. That is seriously no joke. It wasn’t uncommon for him to write five to seven articles per newspaper edition twice a week, sometimes more, with a mix of both news and sports. Try writing one 500-word article and I think you will see how many words that was! 

If you asked Will what his favorite topic to cover for the newspaper – hands down – it was sports. He would have loved to have been a full-time sports writer, if he had been given the opportunity.

But through his job as a general news/sports reporter, Will covered everything from local politics, bank robberies, crime, school board meetings, city council meetings, commissioners’ court meetings, and who would forget the hospital boards and water supply board meetings. Seriously, you name it, he covered it.

To say he wrote a story about every festival in the county numerous times, is an understatement. 

But the great part about Will was he always kept his sense of humor and would inject it into his stories, whether it was through not only music lyrics, but pop culture references, etc. He loved writing catchy headlines, especially when it involved “dumb” criminals. Sometimes they made it to print, sometimes they didn’t. But they were funny….

But his favorite place to be while working for The Messenger – was on the sidelines, taking pictures and keeping stats on the football field, basketball court, baseball and softball fields. He drove many, many miles covering games just about every Tuesday and Friday night that he worked for The Messenger.  

Greg Ritchie, The Messenger’s reporter since Will left to return to teaching in 2022, had this to say about Will. 

“I knew when I met Will, I would have big shoes to fill and will probably never fill them, completely. He was dedicated to his craft, wanted to get it right and so loved the events, people and sports in this county,” Ritchie said. “I didn’t get to pick his brain nearly enough and I will miss checking in with him and getting his guidance from time to time.”

For me, the copy editor, not only did I enjoy working with Will, as did my co-workers over the years, I also enjoyed our many conversations and hearing some of the wild stories from his younger days that he and former Messenger reporter Jason Jones would tell me. And Will had long hair back in the day, who knew!

I also loved getting to know his wife, Christy, and attending their wedding a few years back. I know Will loved Christy with all of his heart, as well as his family, and his beloved pets. We LOVED talking about our pets. 

Will, I am truly going to miss you, especially every time I drive by Grapeland High School expecting to see your car. And I promised Greg I would tell you – yes, I wrote this on deadline, because you know the newspaper business ….

I am going to end this column with words from Will – from that last column in 2022. 

“Saying goodbye is hard. Sometimes, however, it’s just time to turn the page and start a new chapter in the book of life. Thank you again for allowing me to bring you the news and sports for the last decade or so. It’s been a blast.” – Will Johnson

Cheril Vernon can be contacted via email at [email protected].

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