Child care advocate looks back on her life
Looking back on it now, Jennifer Jean Johnson says her first six years in Jacksonville were unbelievable -– she finished four years of college, had four children and had a year and a half of teaching behind her.

In September of 1956 Jean and four of her friends from Handley High in Roanoke came to Jacksonville State University. They were housed in the old Daugette Hall. She remembers the student body gathering in the evenings after supper on what they called the triangle.

The third day she was here, she and some friends were walking to town.

Two young men stopped and offered them a ride. Jean had left a boyfriend back in Roanoke, but one of those young men, Earl “Pee Wee” Johnson, a local boy, ended up being what she describes as the love of her life and the father of her four children.

After they were married on March 7, 1957, Jean continued her studies at JSU and in January of 1958 their first child, Tonya, was born. Kelly arrived in October of 1959 and twins Sheri and Terri came along in November of 1960.

Jean continued her studies at JSU and helped her husband in his family’s restaurant business during all three pregnancies while all four children were under the age of 3.

Back then school systems allowed teachers to work on what was called emergency certification. In 1961 Jean began working as a substitute teacher in the Calhoun County schools. She taught at Saks High for a year and then went back to JSU full time, graduating in 1963.

After getting her degree in health and physical education she worked in the Anniston City School System.

During the summers from 1965-70, she directed the summer program for the Office of Equal Opportunity for the Anniston and Jacksonville housing authorities, serving hundreds of children, most of the time with her own young children in tow.

In early summer of 1970, Jacksonville Housing Authority director Faith Pearson told Jean about a new program that several area churches were trying to get off the ground. Money was available through the Appalachian Regional Commission and the old Eastwood School was being offered as a site for the project, a day care center for low income working families, something new and very much needed.

The newly formed day care board was looking for a director for the program. Mrs. Pearson urged Jean to apply for the job.

Jean opened the center on Nov. 3, 1970 and continued in that position until her retirement on Nov. 3, 2003.

Along the way she became the program administrator for the East Alabama Child Development Program which incorporated 26 child care centers from Huntsville to Mobile.

Jean found time to serve of district director of the Federation of Women’s Cubs in Alabama in 1975.

She was named Ms. Senior Calhoun County in 2001 and came in 1st runner-up in the state in 2002.

Jean describes herself as a “big Alabama fan” and is frequently seen in her houndstooth attire.

Jean celebrated her 75th birthday Friday night at the Alumni House with a party hosted by her daughters. Also in attendance was her son-in-law, Mike McCord, grandson Graham Lewis and his wife Lauren, and granddaughter Savannah McCord.

“I looked around the room and everybody I saw I loved,” she said. “I didn’t expect many to be there because of the weather, but we had about 100 who showed up.” Some came from other states.

“Looking back on it, I don’t know how I did it all with four babies,” she said. “These days when I get through the day and have scrubbed the floors and put the dishes away I think I’ve done a lot.”

Jean said she’s always been appreciative of her good health and never even required an aspirin. She’s always been physically fit.

In fact, she remembers back in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was in office, how he encouraged everyone to get more active. During those years she and Pee Wee had the JSU football team for supper every Sunday night. One of those nights someone dared them to walk to Birmingham. They did it and received a lot of media attention.

Nowadays she needs medicine for her arthritis. She had a double bypass in 1998 and has had several stents put in.

“But I’m so blessed,” she said. “When I pray in the mornings, I asked the Lord to just tell me what I deserve to have these four beautiful women, my babies, in my life. We grew up together. They’re still my best friends.”

Reflecting on her life, she said it has been “awesome, my blessings are many, my regrets are few, my memories are colorful and my stories could fill volumns. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

She said the most amazing thing of all is that she did it without a cell phone.
© 2013