Understanding impact of a man named Avery

Vice mayor look at roots and ambitions

By RICK NORTON
Posted 2/10/19

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a 3-part Monday series spanning the life, thoughts and beliefs of Cleveland Vice Mayor Avery Johnson. Although portions of the articles have been written by the …

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Understanding impact of a man named Avery

Vice mayor look at roots and ambitions

Posted

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a 3-part Monday series spanning the life, thoughts and beliefs of Cleveland Vice Mayor Avery Johnson. Although portions of the articles have been written by the Cleveland Daily Banner, they are based on a Q&A originally published in “Tennessee Town & City,” a publication of the Tennessee Municipal League. TML has granted permission for the reprint of any, or all, of this material).

It all started with an idea by Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks: Use his “Mayor’s Moment” weekly column published in the Thursday edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner to honor one of the community’s most respected statesmen, Vice Mayor Avery Johnson.

To do so, the first-year mayor — who has held the City Hall helm since September — would preface the heartfelt tribute with an introduction about the Cleveland native, adding his own sentiments along the way, and then reprint in full a detailed Q&A published earlier by “Tennessee Town & City,” a popular publication of the Tennessee Municipal League.

The tribute would include a recognition of the annual observance of Black History Month during the 28-day course of February.

On paper, it was a solid plan. But it faced a problem … a pretty big problem. The original Q&A, as published by TML, came in at close to 2,800 words. In a newspaper, that’s about 120 column inches. That’s a lot … too much so for a single Opinion page column.

But that kind of length could fill another purpose; that being, a 3-part news series dedicated not only to the vice mayor but to Black History Month, as well. Publish it in the Monday editions, and give it front-page placement.

What began as a mayor’s well-intended Opinion page tribute to a longtime member of the Cleveland City Council, and a familiar and respected voice of the black community, had suddenly morphed into something much bigger.

Sticking to part of the original plan, Brooks introduced today’s start of the series in his column in last Thursday’s edition.

“Over the course of February, as we commemorate Black History Month, we will highlight and celebrate men and women all across our state and nation,” Brooks wrote in “Mayor’s Moment.”

“But right here at home, in Cleveland and Bradley County, it truly is an honor to serve with a municipal leader as distinguished as our own vice mayor, Avery Johnson.”

Later in the column, he credited the original work of “Tennessee Town & City” journalist Linda Bryant — and the willingness of the Tennessee Municipal League — to grant permission for the publication’s article to be reprinted in part, or in full, by the Cleveland Daily Banner.

“… I want to say thank you as well to the Cleveland Daily Banner for their willingness to partner with me, with the city of Cleveland and with the observance of Black History Month to bring Vice Mayor Johnson into a deserved spotlight,” Brooks wrote.

Featuring the work

of Linda Bryant and

‘Tennessee Town & City’

As an introduction to the detailed piece on Johnson, and before launching into the featured Q&A, Bryant offered, “Most communities have at least one resident who can speak about bygone days, as well as current times with so much knowledge and authority that almost everyone responds to with deep respect and admiration. Hands down, Avery Johnson fills that role in Cleveland and Bradley County.”

In the author’s continued words, “Johnson has been working and serving the region for decades. He has gone from attending school and working during a time when, as an African-American, he was required to use separate water fountains, bathrooms — even a separate bus station — to serving in many key leadership roles, including vice mayor and councilman-at-large on the Cleveland City Council.”

As Cleveland and Bradley County residents who know the vice mayor likely know, Bryant said of the civic and government leader, “… [He] showed leadership qualities early in life, and although he wanted to pursue a rigorous education after high school, his ambitions were whittled down because he needed to help his mom who was a single parent.”

To help pay the bills, Johnson went to work for the former Magic Chef Company, the storied Cleveland-based manufacturer that went on to become part of the former Maytag Corporation, and later the modern-day Whirlpool Corporation.

Joining Magic Chef at 19, he climbed the shop-floor ladder and worked in a variety of positions — which included shipping and human resources, as well as manufacturing — for the next 43 years.

“All the while, Johnson educated himself wherever and whenever he could, joined key community organizations, and set about making Cleveland a better place to live for all,” Bryant wrote.

Q&A tells the tale

of Avery Johnson,

both young and old

TT&C: Describe your history and roots in Cleveland. Tell us about growing up in the area and give a few details about your family.

AJ: My grandmother, mom and family moved to Cleveland in 1938 from Hollywood, Ala. My grandmother, whose maiden name was Dovie Cobb, opened a restaurant known as the Eveready Cafe on East Inman Street around 1939. I was born in the early 1940s and graduated from College Hill High School with honors. I was president of the student council, editor-in-chief of my class yearbook, and also played football. I worked every day after school at Watson Grocery, Simon Grocery, and Cedar Lane Restaurant. Sometimes I worked for the janitor cleaning up after school.

I have two sons. My oldest son, Avery Jr., has his own music studio in Atlanta. He’s traveled all over the world and toured with BeBe & CeCe Winans and with Bobby Jones out of Nashville. My youngest son, Sean, is also musically inclined, and he’s a juvenile correctional officer. They are both great kids, and they have never been in any trouble. I lost my first wife in 2011, and we were married for 49 years. I’ve remarried again and have gotten lucky twice. I have two grandsons, and they are the best grandsons in the world.

TT&C: You have been on the Cleveland City Council since 1993. Thinking back, what inspired you to run for office?

AJ: I was always involved in community services. I was a member of the Citizens Improvement League when I was 19 years old, which meant listening to people twice my age talking about segregation issues and discrimination problems. In 1992, I was asked to serve on the Charter Study Commission to look at the different forms of governments and decide which form of government best fit the city of Cleveland. After our recommendation passed on a referendum in the 1993 elections, I was asked to serve as a city councilman. At that time, we were appointed for two years. Under the council-manager form of government we needed three additional council members. I was appointed for the first two years, and after that I was hooked like a fish and have run six times and won six times. Hallelujah! 

TT&C: What professional interests and jobs have occupied you over the years?

AJ: I worked for Magic Chef Inc./Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products/Whirlpool Corp. for 43 years and eight months. [The company changed names because of corporate acquisitions.] I actually started out working in the garage department washing trucks and changing the names on tractors and trailers from Dixie Products to Magic Chef Inc. I was 19 at the time. When I retired in 2005, I was superintendent of the shipping and warehouse department. I was a molder in the foundry for seven years, grinder and sandblast machine operator for three years, assembly line supervisor, general foreman in the electric range department and team process coordinator.

TT&C: Is there anything about your career at Maytag that helped you prepare as a public servant?

AJ: Everything about Maytag prepared me because I took all the training that they offered — all the workshops and seminars. I went to Middle Tennessee State University for training; I went to the University of Tennessee for training; and I also went to Black Mountain, North Carolina, for a leadership conference. Plus, I gained a lot of experience as a supervisor and general foreman. I spent five years working on and off in HR. All of this contributed to the success I’ve had in the community.

I really got lucky with Maytag, because when I got out of high school I didn’t have money for college. I had to go to work and help my mom because she was a single parent. I worked and went to night school at Cleveland State and got whatever I could for education. I was very studious when I was in school. I took all of it, everything that I could. Plus, I read a lot of books.

TT&C: What is the most important book that you’ve read?

AJ: My favorite book is by Congressman John Lewis called “Walking with the Wind.” Lord have mercy, there are so many books that I have read! Reading has taught me a lot of lessons in life to live by, especially leadership books.

———

(Next: The “Tennessee Town & City” Q&A covers subjects like Johnson’s experiences of living and working during the Civil Rights era, political campaigns and the growth of his Cleveland hometown. Part 2 will be published on Monday, Feb. 18).




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