81-year-old receives diploma

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 24, 2014

Like most of Andalusia High School’s 2014 graduates, Charles Johnson spent much of the day Friday reminiscing about past events with family and friends. But, while many of his fellow graduates had been awaiting last night’s commencement ceremony for 13 years, Johnson had been dreaming of it for more than 60.

At 81, Johnson became the oldest graduate, by far, to cross the stage at AHS. And he did so a full 62 years after quitting high school to join the military, where he later earned his GED.

“I joined (the military) in March of 1952,” he said Friday morning. “At that time, my mother worked and had five boys. I was the youngest, and none of them had graduated high school. I wanted to get out and get me a job.”

After a brief job search, Johnson said he enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent 20 years in the military, including a one-year tour in Vietnam and a 12-year stint in Germany, where he met his now-wife, Liselotte.

Friday morning, the Johnsons sat surrounded by family at a small table in Andalusia’s Holiday Inn Express. They looked at black-and-white photos of town in the 1930s and 40s as their patriarch relived scenes from his boyhood. Just like his fellow graduates, Johnson has plenty of Andalusia stories.

“I got a loan at that bank and bought a 1938 Ford,” he said with a chuckle, pointing to the Timmerman building on the town square. “My mom co-signed for me and, when I left, I sold it to my friend for $25. Mom made me keep paying on the loan. She said I wasn’t going to leave her with it. So I was paying the loan off and I didn’t even have the car.”

Johnson said visiting his mother at her final resting place in a local cemetery is something he has returned to Andalusia to do on several occasions, and would be a part of his graduation weekend as well.

But, while his parents didn’t witness him receive his diploma Friday night, his only living brother, Roy; his son, Roger; his daughter and son-in-law, Diana and Larry Penix; his nephew, Jeff Johnson; and Liselotte did.

“We were out in the garage on his last birthday just talking,” Roger Johnson said. “And I asked him, ‘Dad, what is your biggest regret?’ He said it was not graduating high school.”

Roger said a few phone calls and a year later, he is proud his father has seen a lifelong dream realized.

Johnson himself, visibly emotional, said he too is proud. He said, despite having earned his GED decades earlier, crossing the stage at his alma mater is deeply personal.

“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said, wiping away a tear. “It’s the top point of my life.

“Well, it’s a top point of my life,” he said, quickly correcting himself. An arm extended in the direction of Liselotte, he said: “That’s the top point of my life.”

And what a life it has been. A father of two boys and one girl; a grandfather of four; and a great-grandfather of five, Johnson has retired from both the military and a long career in law enforcement that spanned several decades and two states. But no matter how far he strayed from his roots in southern Alabama, his children say it was never far from his mind.

“He used to sing the Andalusia fight song (“Corn, Corn for Ole Andy High”) in the car all the time,” Roger said. “He’s always wanted to come back and do this.”

But, as emotional as his graduation weekend was for Johnson, it was also therapeutic and even comical, he said.

“(AHS Principal) Dr. (Daniel) Shakespeare took us on a tour of the school,” Johnson said with a smile. “He told me, ‘This is the last time you have to go to the principal’s office before you graduate.’”

Johnson joined the other 119 Andalusia High School graduates on the stage Friday night as part of the Class of 2014.