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George Johnson: City Patriarch

In researching the various subjects I have written about, on occasion I come across people who strike me as having gone above and beyond what entitles a person to be termed a city father or mother. When I met George M. Johnson in the archive of the Santa Anna News, it did not take long to conclude that this man was more than a father—he was a patriarch.

George Mayberry Johnson was born December 13, 1903, in Fort Worth. He came with his parents to Santa Anna in 1924. His father had been General Superintendent of the West Texas Telephone Company in Brownwood for over twenty years and bought the Santa Anna Telephone Company in ‘24. George graduated Brownwood High School and attended Daniel Baker College where he met and later married Era Lee in 1925.

George’s father died and left the telephone exchange to him in 1930. Soon George began to expand the Santa Anna Telephone exchange by buying the smaller, more rural exchanges such as those of Whon and Shields. Please recall that in the 1930s, telephone lines might consist of a wire strung along the cedar posts of a fence. No joke. In a pinch, sometimes a strand of barbed wire in a fence might be patched in until a more sufficient repair could be made. The telephone business was still sketchy in rural Texas in the 1930s. George made it work, though.

When the Santa Anna Exchange was created around the turn of the twentieth century, the switchboards and operators were located on the second floor of Santa Anna National Bank. George was influential in moving the equipment from the bank into the building across the street from the Telephone Coop today. George saw the future expansion of telephone service and planned for its growth.

But George Johnson was more than a businessman. Much more. He was an organizer and charter member of the Santa Anna Lions’ Club—an institution in our town for over seventy years. He was a member of the First Methodist Church and the Knights of Pythias, a benevolent lodge in Brownwood. He was a devoted member of the Santa Anna Fire Department where he served as Fire Chief and Fire Marshall. He even went on to be elected president of the Hill Country Firemen’s regional organization. He was always in the forefront of any fire department activity or fund-raising.

Like the television ads say, “But wait! There’s more!” Johnson served on the Board of Directors of the Santa Anna Rodeo Association from its beginning until it ceased operation during World War II. He helped secure the performance of the Light Crust Doughboys at the rodeo. He was deeply involved in the local Boy Scouts organization, serving on its scout recruiting committee for several years. He was Chairman of the local softball league when it was formed just after World War II.
And George Johnson was mayor of Santa Anna, elected in April 1939. He remained in that office until January of 1949, leading the city through the tough times of part of the Great Depression and all of World War II. He was influential in securing the funding from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration to build the diversion canal, which was named for him, at the base of the mountain north of Avenue A. He led the city in raising funds to pour concrete sidewalks in the business area of town, and in 1946, just after the war, he secured several structures for the city from the disassembly of Camp Bowie, including the Santa Anna ISD gym.

It may be that George Johnson’s greatest achievement is something most of us use daily: The Coleman County Telephone Cooperative. As owner and operator of the Santa Anna Telephone Company in 1953, Johnson looked at the model of the recently formed Coleman County Electric Cooperative, under the recently formed United States Rural Electrification Administration, and along with several other prominent area citizens, helped form the Coleman County Telephone Cooperative. Once founded, the Board of Directors tapped Johnson to manage the infant Co-op. He assumed his duties in January of 1955 and guided the Co-op through its application and accepting of its first REA grant of $540,000. The grant was used to buy and incorporate the telephone exchanges in Rockwood, Trickham and others. He relinquished the manager position in February 1956 when he retired.

There is no doubt in my mind that George M. Johnson was the right man at the right time for our little city. He looked into the future and saw that commitment and dedication were required to take the town there, even in small things like sidewalks and diversion ditches that still serve today. For towns –especially West Texas towns—to survive, patriarchs like George Johnson are critical. We need more of his type today.