John Tilson Johnson, Jr., of Winnsboro, South Carolina, died April 20, 2020.
Eldest child of Ernestine Sanders Johnson and John Tilson Johnson, Sr., John was born March 25, 1943, in Winnsboro when his father was serving in the 36th Infantry Division. He was born in the manse of the Bethel ARP Church, where his grandfather was pastor.
His lifelong passion for sports was rooted in a happy childhood spent playing every sport available. He played football and baseball during his high school years at Mount Zion Institute and then at Winnsboro High School, where he was a member of the first graduating class in 1961. Highlights of these years were winning State Football Championships in 1958 and 1959 and a State Baseball Championship in 1960.
John was recruited by a number of colleges for football, but his heart was set on West Point, where he played for beloved coach Paul Dietzel. The capstone of his time on the Black Knights team was the 1964 Army-Navy game. Cadet Johnson played both offense and defense for all but a brief break, and the Army team defeated a strong Midshipmen team quarterbacked by Roger Staubach. Another highlight from his West Point years was hearing General MacArthur's 1962 "Duty, Honor, Country" speech to the Corps of Cadets. The inspiring legacy of the Academy's leadership as well as the enduring friendships formed with classmates remained with John always.
Following graduation from West Point in June 1965, John married his high school sweetheart, Mary Baker Coleman, also of Winnsboro. He completed Airborne and Ranger Schools soon after, having chosen the infantry as his branch of service. His first assignment was with the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, NC.
John served two tours in Vietnam: the first, 1967-1968, as an advisor to the Vietnamese 2nd Airborne Battalion; the second, 1969-1970, in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He was awarded a Silver Star for Gallantry in Action and three Bronze Stars for Heroism in Ground Combat.
After Vietnam, John coached the West Point plebe football team for three years before continuing a military career that would ultimately amount to twenty-four years of service. Subsequent assignments included the Infantry Officer Advanced Course at Fort Benning, GA; a staff position again with the 82nd Airborne Division; postings in Landstuhl and Mannheim, Germany; the Command and General Staff College Course at Fort Leavenworth, KS; and work in Special Operations for the Atlantic Command at Fort Bragg. After a final tour of duty at the Pentagon, John retired from the army in 1989 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Civilian life afforded John and Mary additional happy years in Vienna, VA. John worked seven years as a defense contractor before he and Mary returned to Winnsboro in 1996 to live at Tokaylon, John's childhood home from the age of ten and cherished locale for family gatherings. John enjoyed completing an MBA at the University of South Carolina in 1999. He was a steadfast servant of Bethel ARP Church, active in many leadership roles as well as in the Sunday School as superintendent and dedicated teacher.
John shared with his family his love of sports, including post-football passions of running and tennis. His family even occasionally offered serious and contentious competition from across the net. John also loved good writing--he was a quoter of Shakespeare, a magnificent letter-writer, and occasional poet. He leaves behind delightful, witty poems that marked special events and countless letters offering encouragement, congratulations, and sympathy. Also cherished are the memories, untainted by jealousy, of his status as household favorite of pets, canine and feline. And his tender heart for the wild birds and animals that frequented his home will always be fondly remembered.
Affectionately called "Didah" by his grandchildren, he was known as a master waffle chef, awake before everyone and ready with waffles and bacon. He permitted lavish toppings of syrup, powdered sugar, or both. On beach trips, Didah delighted the grandchildren with post-bicycling plunges into the surf wearing shorts and t-shirt.
John bore his health concerns of recent years with no complaint; his lifelong gentlemanly stoicism, grace, and good humor did not waver.
He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Mary; daughters Martha O'Carroll (Nicholas) and Helen Denny; son John Tilson Johnson, III (Kristie Greco); grandchildren Liam, George, and John O'Carroll; Fred, Mary, James, and Martha Denny; and Louise and John Johnson; sister Martha Johnson Strain (Samuel Butler); brothers Laurens Ellis Johnson and Elliott Ridgeway Johnson; uncle Rhett Sanders, Sr. (Virginia); and many beloved cousins, nieces, and nephews.
His brother Oliver died a month before John on March 20. A memorial service for John and Oliver will be held at a later date. A private graveside service for John will take place Friday, April 24.
The family thanks the staff of NHC Parklane, Columbia, for their care and kindness to John over the past three years.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Bethel ARP Church, P.O. Box 639, Winnsboro, SC 29180.
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