When Dr. Fred Johnson, a 73-year-old veteran educator, was informed he might be nominated for a vacancy on the Shelby County School Board, he was planning to go out of town. Instead, he hastily shifted his travel arrangements to be present at Monday's meeting of the Shelby County Commission, which was due to pick someone as new County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker's replacement on the school board.
"I didn't do any campaigning for the position at all," says Johnson. "I was surprised in fact to see my name in the paper."
That surprise, however, yielded to satisfaction when the commission, which interviewed Johnson and several other nominees, opted for him with virtual unanimity. Johnson's good fortune was crowned by his success in "talking my way out of a rescheduling fee" when he had to change both departure times and airlines for his flight out after Monday's meeting.
Johnson's lengthy career in education began in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, when the Middle Tennessee native was working in Michigan as an insurance executive. Offered the chance to come to Shelby County to teach biology and other sciences at Woodstock High School, then an all-black institution, he jumped at it.
"I did notice that the races were very much more separated than I had been used to in Nashville. That took some getting used to. I didn't want to accept it," Johnson recalls.
He had taken no particular role in the burgeoning civil rights movement until Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis in 1968. "That did it," says Johnson. By then the science supervisor for the Shelby County school system, he became a member of the NAACP and pushed more actively for change in both education and society at large.
Soon he was serving as assistant superintendent for the district, a position he held until the late '90s when, for a brief period, he became acting superintendent. He later served as human-services director for the Memphis school system until his retirement in 1999.
He has accepted his current position with the understanding that it, too, is temporary. "I won't run for reelection when the term is up in two years," says Johnson.
Though conscious of the fact that much attention was paid to the ethnicity of the board, Johnson says, "I'd like to think that my record of diligent work to improve education over a 40-year span is why I was selected. I've never in my life sought a job because of race or ethnicity, although" -- he chuckled modesty -- "I'm sure I've been denied some because of it."