“How ya doin’ Frank?!”
“I’m fine, Charlie. You?”
Charlie Johnson made you feel better with what too often is a brief, mundane slice of our work life: the daily greeting. Charlie greeted you like he hadn’t seen you in far too long ... and missed you.
My friend Charlie Johnson — a friend to anyone who has worked for Contemporary Media over the last quarter century — died in his sleep last Wednesday. He was 71. And knowing Charlie as we did here at CMI, he died too young. I really miss him today.
Charlie was the superintendent of our building on Tennessee Street, one of the few remaining structures from downtown’s original warehouse district. Consider the challenges of keeping a century-old three-story structure fully functional and you get a sense of Charlie Johnson’s strength (and will power). While he technically worked for our building’s landlord, Charlie was one of us, as much a part of the Flyer (or Memphis magazine, or Memphis Parent, or MBQ) as any editor, account executive, or graphic designer.
We all know captains of industry who go about their jobs with the weariness of burden. However fat a salary may be, it isn’t enough to soothe their troubles. Charlie was quite the opposite. He tackled a leaky pipe — or a massive, under-performing air-conditioning unit — like it was a not-quite-worthy adversary, in the way of his team doing its best, in the best of conditions. Somehow, he took on these adversaries with a smile awaiting the next passerby.
Charlie, hidden to the waist by that AC unit: “Alright! Alright!”
I never saw Charlie without a hat. His favorite was a baby-blue sailor’s cap. When he was met with an especially tricky challenge — are we supposed to have fruit flies in magazine editorial? — he’d tip that hat slightly backward, as if he was allowing a few more thoughts to seep in (or out). The next day at the office, the fruit flies were history.
Several months ago, Charlie reacted adversely to prescribed medication. His illness sidelined him for a longer period, I imagine, than he’d ever been away from work. But he was back at our office building in mid-August, thinner than he should be. (Had Charlie been a boxer, he would have made weight — with room to spare — for every fight.) I asked him about his recent plight, and stressed how great it was to see him (hat on his head, smile on his face).
“Frank, you don’t want to know what that was like,” he said, alluding to his long fight back. “It was scary, man. You don’t want to know.”
I shook Charlie’s hand that day, the last day I saw him. And I was reminded of one of Charlie’s true assets: a handshake that could crack a brick. You can learn a lot from a man by his handshake. I’ll miss shaking Charlie Johnson’s hand, and I’ll miss how good he made a workday feel. But when considering a mantra as life’s challenges present themselves, I’ll remember Charlie’s approach: “Alright! Alright!”