Thelma Johnson, the only child of her beloved mother, Marguerite Bickham Butts and Archie Martin, was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana on December 29, 1925. Raised by Marguerite and step-father, Reeves Smith, Thelma attended the public schools of Bogalusa. As an only child, much of Thelma’s youth was spent with her younger first cousins in the Bickham and Peters families; they were as close as any siblings, with multiple families occasionally sharing a residence or living next door to each other. Their bond was unbreakable and even until 2021, the remaining cousins maintain regular contact from New York, California, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Along with a group of teen girlfriends, Thelma visited an army base where she met the love of her life, Willie G. Johnson. Her family members were concerned about the age difference as Willie was well into his 20s. They didn’t want 17-year-old Thelma to go off with “that soldier boy”. But the love was strong and sure. The couple married on February 14, 1943 and remained together until Willie’s death 49 years later. Following Willie’s discharge from the U.S. Army, the couple moved to New Orleans. A short time thereafter, they and their infant son, Larry, relocated to East Chicago, Indiana where Willie’s dad lived. Taking advantage of the employment opportunities in the area, Willie held various jobs before being hired by the Inland Steel Company from which he retired after 39 years.
Mrs. Johnson had been raised in the Church of God in Christ. Her relationship with God and her church were integral parts of her life. Thelma was extremely close to her mother who soon joined her in East Chicago. Both became members of Friendly COGIC where they worshipped together for many years. What a strong mother-daughter bond. When the congregation relocated to Gary, Indiana and was renamed Baker’s Temple COGIC and later ICCM (Inspirational Community Center Ministry, Inc.), both remained faithful members along with several other relatives. Thelma served as the church treasurer and in several other capacities. A joy was attending the Holy Convocation in Memphis for many years. A lover of praise and worship, it was not unusual to see Thelma “cutting a step” in thankfulness on Sunday mornings. She was deeply humbled upon being recognized and honored as the oldest congregant at ICCM in both age and longevity of membership. Her church home and her church family brought her indescribable fulfillment!
A frequent topic of conversation for Miss Thelma was how lonely life could be as an only child. Perhaps that is why she and Willie parented nine children and lovingly involved themselves in every aspect of their lives. Education was a top priority! As the children (whose ages spanned 24 years) went through school, their parents were regularly involved in the PTA, conferences, sporting events, and active volunteers who walked the halls of the high school. Teachers, students, and the entire community respected them greatly. One might say that they were among the original “power couples”.
Though she held a variety of jobs throughout her life including domestic worker and class room assistant at a local elementary school, Mrs. Johnson’s true calling was probably to have been a banker or an accountant. Her unmatched natural gift for detail, efficiency, and accuracy with figures, money management, budgeting and record keeping was amazing; her books always matched “to the penny”. Beyond employment, Thelma busied herself with sewing beautiful outfits for her daughters, attending plays and musicals, working with ladies in The Excelsior Art Club, meeting with Zion MBC’s Golden Seniors Fellowship group, and shopping. She was widely traveled, having visited England, Germany, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, Hawaii and forty of the other states. Whenever asked, “Do you want to go to…?” Thelma’s bags were packed lickety-split. She was the perfect travel companion who never caused any delay, and was agreeable to all suggestions. She simply enjoyed the trip.
If asked to identify the one thing that truly gave Sister Johnson joy, it could be stated in one word: FAMILY. She lived for her family! If you have ever been in her presence, you know that she can “talk your ear off” and family is generally the topic of discussion. Visits with any of her seven grandchildren or fifteen great-grands brightened Thelma’s day. At age 70 she was challenged by a grandson to a race and nearly outran him. She did a cartwheel for another doubting grandchild. She would ride a bike at a whim and she was always in shape, never topping 110 pounds…regardless of her hearty appetite. She had a different “special game” for each of the youngest great-grands: MaRiyah, Niles, Jace, and Jamie. They all loved the interaction and they would laugh with delight whenever in her presence. The love in this little lady that they called “Gran” was enough to move a mountain!
“Fashionista” definitely describes Mrs. Johnson. With her love of shopping came her impeccable taste in clothing and accessories. Every outfit had to match—from purse, to shoes, to necklace, earrings, bracelets, watch, and hat. Thelma didn’t believe in half-stepping with her presentation. Those who enjoy the company of sociable, caring people could not help but to love Thelma. She appreciated sending and receiving greeting cards. She would purchase the children’s birthday cards, write a wonderful note, enclose money, and have the cards stamped and ready for mailing weeks in advance. When she received cards, senders could always count on a personal “thank you”. When her children solicited 90 birthday cards for her 90th birthday celebration, that number was far exceeded and she answered every single one with a hand-written note in her beautiful penmanship.
On December 3, 2017, Thelma suffered a stroke that left her unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair. By God’s grace her mind and great memory remained perfectly intact. Being who she is, (strong in faith, determined, positive, persevering), she endured feeding tubes, a liquid diet, and lengthy hospital and rehab stays with a determination to walk again. Her family moved her to Indianapolis to be closer to several of her children and upon completion of physical therapy and water therapy at the YMCA, she began to attend Still Waters Adult Day Center daily. The staff and guests were immediately found to be loving, kind, and attentive. New friendships were formed; Thelma even acquired the skill of playing air-hockey (her favorite). Additionally, she loved the arts, crafts, coloring, exercising, and music activities. Upon resuming physical therapy an exciting milestone was reached. Thelma was filmed walking a considerable distance on her walker on Christmas Eve of 2020 and the video was shared with family. What a proud moment that was for her! Her broad smile said it all.
Daily devotions and reading God’s Word were constants in Mother Johnson’s life and this fueled her faith. Even as 2021 presented new health challenges that quickly snowballed into greater challenges, she did not abandon hope, nor did she complain! Thelma declined life-prolonging measures, but opted to return home (to be with loved ones). Even in the midst of pandemic restrictions, her local family members all were able to see her face-to-face. This gave Thelma such satisfaction and probably a sense of peace and rest. On Wednesday evening at bedtime, her daughter whispered Psalms into her ear and sang gospel tunes, thinking they would have a soothing and calming effect. Apparently so. Early on the morning of Thursday, February 18, 2021, she peacefully fell asleep in Christ.
Thelma Johnson was predeceased by her mother, Marguerite Butts, her husband of 49 years, Willie G. Johnson, sons: Anthony Gordon, Eugene LeMoyne, Larry Elliot, and Winston Charles Johnson. She leaves to cherish her memory and legacy of love sons: Reverend Ronald Johnson (Muncie), Terrell (Elizabeth) Johnson, (Indianapolis), daughters, Jeanette (Richard) Jackson, (Indianapolis), Athena Johnson (East Chicago), Tamara Moore, (North Carolina), devoted daughter-in-love, Jessica Johnson (Indianapolis) grandchildren: Karla (Kamau) Hall, (Okinawa, Japan), Kenya (Corey) McClanahan (Florida), Julian Jackson, (Georgia) Danielle Johnson, (Indianapolis), Candice (Michael) Hankerson, (Indianapolis), Jared (Ashlea Shields) Jackson, (Indianapolis), Joshua Johnson, (Muncie), great-grandchildren: Jon-Michael Hall, Jada Hall, Aaron (“AJ”) Harris, Jr., Nadia McClanahan, Elijah Harris, Josiah Hall, MaKayla Hankerson, Isaiah Harris, Nigel McClanahan, MaKenzye Hankerson, Mayah Hankerson, MaRiyah Hankerson, Niles McClanahan, Jace Jackson, and Jamison Jackson; special cousins: Burnell Peters (Georgia), John Bickham (New York) and Mary Williams (Georgia); long-time caring friends: Missionary Mary Spiller, Elder James & Sister Betty Chandler; dedicated Pastor Louis Baker & First Lady Ragina Baker, the ICCM church family, Supervisor Dorothy Dillon, Zion MBC Golden Seniors Fellowship, “adopted” granddaughters Gayla Williams, Mica White and Jessica Smith, Still Waters Adult Day Center staff (Deb, Dorothy, Mika, Francene, Natalie, Jessica, Ty, Tammy, Robin), dear friends, Lula and Mary R., and a host of other relatives and friends.
Whether you called her Mother, Thelma, Sister Johnson, Mother Johnson, Aunt Thelma, Miss Thelma, “Gran”, Li’l Ma, or Li’l Bit, you were special to her. What a long, blessed life of service, loving and giving this beautiful Woman of God has led. We all anticipate, with the greatest expectation and joy, the day when we will be reunited with her for all eternity in our Heavenly home. What a day!