By Laura Ann Tipps/Staff correspondent
Johnson’s Giant Food stores have been fixtures of the Etowah County landscape for almost 40 years.
On July 4, the stores’ founder and owner, William “Bill” Johnson, passed away at the age of 77. Although Bill’s weekly visits to all three area Johnson grocery stores will be missed, his three kids, Diane, Lynn, and Mack, are well prepared to continue operating the stores and living his legacy.
“Daddy knew grocery – he knew what it took,” said daughter Diane, who handles the family’s real estate and works at the Johnson’s headquarters office alongside her two sisters-in-law.
Bill was a businessman, but he was a family man first.
“Taking care of his family was important to him,” said Diane, who emulates this quality, speaking fondly her sisters-in-law and of brothers Lynn, who heads up the meat departments of the stores, and Mack, who keeps the grocery aisles up to date with tagging and promotions.
Because of this structure, Diane said, “We don’t get in each other’s way a lot, so we’ve been able to work together all these years.”
In fact, family was one of the major reasons for the opening of the first Johnson’s store. After working his way from bagger to store manager in Tennessee and Georgia, Bill transferred and had been managing local A&P stores for years when the small town A&Ps began to close.
Bill and his wife, Louise, decided that instead of transferring from the area they considered home, they would open their own grocery store. With a high school senior daughter and her two younger brothers, the Johnsons wanted to settle down rather than uproot their family again. The couple sold a piece of property and used the money to open the first Johnson’s Giant Food store in Attalla.
“They never thought they would build a business big enough for the whole family to work in,” Diane said as she flips through family photos. “We’ve brought many, many families into our family,” referring to the stores’ 250 employees – a big jump from the 12-15 people they started with 40 years ago.
Diane attributes much of the stores’ success to her father’s unwavering honesty, humility, and hard work. He instilled these values into Diane, Lynn, and Mack, who can’t imagine living their lives or running their business any other way.
Diane clearly admires the labor her brothers have poured into the stores.
“That’s something Daddy was very proud of – his sons. And, sometimes, he’d be proud of me, too,” she added with a sheepish grin.
The upstanding business owner and family man had his quirks, as well. The kids eventually gave up after throwing him several retirement parties because he could never completely go through with it, and Louise wrote most of the checks because Bill didn’t think he had time to fool with a checking account.
“Mom has always been right beside Daddy, working right beside him,” said Diane. “They were wonderfully in love. It was a beautiful romance.”
Neither Bill nor Louise had dated much when they met. They immediately fell in love, marrying when he was almost 18 and Louise was only 15. In their younger years, the couple rode motorcycles, clogged, and square danced. They enjoyed traveling around the country in their RV as they grew older, but caring for their family was always the number one priority.
“It was unbelievable, the life that we had, because Mother loved us and Daddy was there to support us and was always that big, stout brick wall that wouldn’t let anything hurt us,” Diane said.
The Johnson kids never liked going more than a day without talking to their parents, and their beloved dad will certainly be missed. But the children are thankful to have been a part of the business and, more importantly, a part of such a beautiful, supportive family.
“God has blessed us everywhere we turn, and my family appreciates that so, so much,” said Diane. “Daddy gave us the knowledge of what to do and the chance to do it. He’s given us the ability to stay together.”
Bill Johnson is survived by his wife, daughter, two sons, four grandsons, two great-grandchildren and one sister.