Charlie lived an amazing life, born and raised in Bruce, Mississippi, a small sawmill town of about 1300 souls. He was the son of James Holdman Johnson and Bert (Scrivener) Johnson. With his father taking his own life when Charlie was only four, it was his mother, a home economics teacher, who raised Charlie in a house across from the Baptist Church and instilled in him an abiding desire for social justice and to serve others. In Bruce, Charlie had the space and freedom to start developing his military skills — playing soldier, building forts and fighting rubber bullet battles with his friends. But not all young men had such freedom; like most of the South at that time, Bruce was also a place where whites-only signs prevailed – something his mother taught him was not right. Charlie said he never liked the taste of the water from the whites only drinking fountains.
In ninth grade, Charlie left for Gulf Coast Military Academy, in Gulfport, Mississippi. At the end of his high school years, he successfully applied for appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, writing an essay that epitomized his mother’s teachings, about his hopes to change the world into one in which all were equal. West Point held his heart until the day he died. While there, Charlie was happiest in the boxing ring, although other sports – cross country, wrestling, handball and skiing – and the occasional class occupied his time as well.
Upon graduating from West Point in 1955, Charlie was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry. 1956 found him at Fort Benning for Airborne School and then he was on to Ranger School.
Ironically one of Charlie’s early assignments was only 25 miles from his hometown at the University of Mississippi. He was called upon to lead his men as part of the Army deployment to keep the peace as James Meredith became the first African American to attend Ole Miss. As recounted in a Times Union article written on the 50th anniversary of this event, one of Charlie’s men, a young private from Mississippi, said he would not go “fight my folks.” “We’re going down to help our folks, we ain’t going down to fight them,” he remembered telling the private, who stopped protesting. It pained Charlie when Robert Kennedy ordered the troops be segregated so no black soldiers would be hurt if rioting broke out. At the risk of his career, he voiced his opinion that this was wrong. The order stayed and Charlie obeyed, though it went against his beliefs in integration, not segregation.
Charlie’s military career took him on two tours of duty in Vietnam, as a Vietnamese Ranger Advisor, an Operations Officer in the Special Operations Group and finally as a Light Infantry Battalion Commander in the 9th and 25th Infantry Divisions. He also had two tours at West Point, in the Physical Education Department and later in the Office of Intercollegiate Athletics. His love of West Point became a life-long devotion, and he kept active in the activities of the Class of 1955, serving as Class President from 2010 to 2015. In 2015 he was honored by his classmates with a Distinguished Classmate Award, one of his most treasured awards.
In 1981, after 26 ½ years in the US Army, Colonel Charlie Johnson retired while serving at Fort Devens as the Deputy Post Commander. Though Charlie wasn’t one to talk about it, he had seen a lot in those years and not all of it was pleasant. Those experiences, the sometimes hostile greeting given soldiers returning from Vietnam, and his compassionate and charismatic personality made him a natural for his next “career.”
His first job after retirement was at Culver Academies, where he met a young woman named Trudy Hall. After their marriage, having completed a long, successful career in the military, Charlie turned his considerable energies to supporting Trudy in her career in education. Following several “tours of duty,” as he referred to her school postings, in 1999 the couple landed in Troy, New York, when Trudy became the Head of Emma Willard School, a preeminent boarding school for girls. Any concern held by members of the Emma community about how a career Army veteran would respond to the many challenges and circumstances to be confronted by a head-of-school in an environment much different than the military were quickly dispelled.
His dedication to Emma Willard was on display daily as he cheered on EW sports teams, spoke to history classes about his military experiences, and generally served as a grandfather figure for the entire school community. As one former staff member Ian Smith recounted, his eight-year-old son decided he would rather live with kindly Colonel Johnson than his despotic parents. Given a warning the young man was on his way, Charlie greeted him at the door with his usual hospitality and then carefully and cheerfully explained the daily routine: reveille at zero-dark-thirty, followed by two hours of vigorous Army Ranger physical training, breakfast and then a full day of chores. Suddenly the young man’s parents didn’t seem so despotic.
Several times Charlie invited trustees or staff to accompany him to West Point football games, a treat they remember with great affection. From the hair-raising drive over the mountain roads he knew so well, to the campus tours filled with Charlie’s famous stories, to cheering on the home team, these trips showcased Charlie’s devotion to and pride in West Point, the military, and the United States. Indeed, one trustee, after realizing the strength of that tie, donated a large flagpole that still stands in front of the Head’s residence, in honor of Charlie. Every morning Charlie went out at dawn to salute the flag.
Summing it up, Ken McGivern, Assistant Director of Facilities at EW, said in remembrance, “Charlie was a true southern gentleman. He had seen some terrible things and confronted some terrible people in his life, yet would always give everyone a fair shake and see the best in them until they proved otherwise. He was a humble, giving man who proved over and over again you can never help too much. Even in some of his toughest days he was out supporting people who needed it more in his eyes. I like to think I am a better man, just for knowing him.”
During his time in Troy, Charlie also found time for extensive community service, serving on the Troy Ethics Committee and working with Habitat for Humanity. However, his primary focus and his “second career” was supporting the men and women who had served our country in the military, by volunteering in numerous community service and advocacy roles in support of veterans. Among his many roles, Charlie served on the North Albany American Legion Post 1610, VFW Post 8444, Veterans of Lansingburgh, the Rensselaer County Veterans Organization, Stratton VA Medical Center Volunteer DAV Van Driver, the board of trustees of Oakwood Cemetery, the NYS Governor’s Commission for State Veteran Cemeteries, and was especially honored to serve as a member of the board, then president of the Tri County Council Vietnam Era Veterans—truly, his “last command post.”
He was willing to do anything and everything in support of his beloved fellow soldiers. As his wife noted at one Tri-County celebration dinner in 2016, Charlie was always ready to work, “with a smile on his face and his full force, frontal attack mode-including appropriate foul language: flipping hamburgers at China Beach, selling motorcycle tickets at County Fairs, raising funds for the restoration of the Vietnam Memorial in Lafayette Park, (hauling bricks for that monument, too!), football game bus trips to West Point, creating scholarships for the sons and daughters of veterans, supporting Gold Star mothers whenever and wherever they needed him, marching in parades short and long, in the rain and in the heat, with those spit-shined combat boots on.”
Joseph Pollicino, president of the Tri-County Council of Vietnam Era Veterans, recalled, “He brought a lot of knowledge to our organization. He was a down to earth person who gave you a different perspective, being an officer and doing two tours of Vietnam.” He helped with everything from a renovation of the Albany Vietnam Veterans Memorial to setting up endowments at four local colleges. “He took an interest in all veterans’ activities no matter what they were,” Pollicino said. “He is going to be remembered. Everybody he met, he touched. He never missed a meeting. He filled a room when he walked in. He was a colonel, but he didn’t push that. He was one of the guys.” Another veteran activist, Gene Loparco, remembered, “Anything he tackled, he did it with expertise, professionalism, always with a smile and always with respect.” That respect was shown in many ways, including when Charlie served as a van driver for veterans, frequently enlisted men or women. Charlie often did not reveal that he was a colonel so as to make his passenger more comfortable and at ease. His willingness to go the extra mile even led, in 2004, to joining a group of volunteers who posed for a fundraising calendar for the Oakwood Cemetery which showed people seemingly nude in the cemetery. Then age 72, as Mr. November, he posed wearing a Vietnam era backpack, a World War II helmet, a Civil War saber and his own Army boots. His pride and patriotism were always laced with humor.
Both the veterans themselves and their organizations warmly appreciated Charlie’s service, awarding him numerous honors. In 2008, he was Grand Marshall of the Albany Veterans Parade; in 2011 Grand Marshall of Memorial Day in Lansingburgh; in 2011 he was inducted into the New York State Veterans’ Hall of Fame; in 2014 he was named Veteran of the Year at a ceremony co-sponsored by the Friends of the New York State Military Museum and the Capital District of New York (CDNY) Chapter of the Association of the US Army, a certified commemorative partner of the Vietnam War Commemoration. In speaking at that occasion, Charlie demonstrated his trademark humility mixed with pride in the men and women who serve in the United States military, emotionally noticing so many veterans in the audience whom he deemed worthy of the honor he was receiving. With his also characteristic humor, he noted, “Robert E. Lee got as far as Gettysburg 150 years ago, so finally you got a guy from Mississippi make it all the way to New York. We’ve finally landed.”
Charlie also had a deep interest in the importance of education for all ages. He served on the advisory board for a leadership program at Duke University. As the Endowment Chairman of the Tri County Council Vietnam Era Veterans, he obtained an endowment of over $100,000 to fund scholarships for veterans at Hudson Valley, Schenectady, and Adirondack Community Colleges. He also secured scholarships for students at Russell Sage College who are studying nursing, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. He helped establish a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Albany High School. He spoke to Emma Willard history classes and to young students at the Parker School in Troy about West Point and military history, always bringing his characteristic storytelling style to transform any issue into a living and compelling narrative.
Charlie truly left his mark on everyone and everything he touched during his long and productive life. One of his favorite quotes was “there’s no greater feeling of self-satisfaction than to serve your country and know you served it well.” And that he did.