A Painter of Paths: A Weaver of Peace~ Gayle Johnson
Staff Writer | April 24, 2015
She serves her Southern sweet tea in narrow glass goblets from a tray; it’s smooth like a Louisiana river in the middle of summer.
“The sweet is infused right in the tea bag,” Gail Johnson said. “One bag makes two quarts … When I go back I buy armfuls of it.”
And it doesn’t take long to figure out, no matter when you might stop by the pale yellow stucco cottage on Franklin in Rutland’s southwest neighborhood; there’ll be a fresh pitcher in the fridge.
“Stop by anytime,” she said in such a way, it’s certain she means it.
Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo Gayle Johnson explores the Rutland southwest neighborhood with an 1860’s map.
Johnson’s charm and gentility easily betray her many years of Southern living. But spend a bit of time with Johnson and her other life influences emerge. Perhaps it’s the hip-hop and modern funk playing in the background or the decidedly New York City loft colors of her walls that give a hip edge to the 71-year-old’s Southern charm.
But what seems most important to Johnson are her New England roots.
“My mother was 100 percent English and her family was Abbott,” Johnson shared with such a detailed intensity anyone listening quickly feels invited into her family tale. “The homestead was in Andover, Mass. And my mother’s family was the New Hampshire Abbotts. A branch came over to Londonderry, Vt. so I am a fourth or fifth generation New Englander.”
Putting her own cultural influences aside, she looks for the thread of history that runs through neighborhoods and this is often what has made up the fabric of Johnson’s life choices. “I have a keen interest in historic preservation,” she said. “And I come from working class people.”
Born in Omaha, Neb., she laughs at the connection her neighborhood has to Nebraska.
“The realtor told me, we call this area Nebraska,” she said, recounting the tale that has lived on for several generations in what’s now known as the SW. The way the story goes, the Irish parishioners of St. Peter’s were leaving to go out west. And Fr. Bolen told them one Sunday, “don’t leave, let this be your Nebraska.”
When Johnson heard this, she knew she was home. So she left northern Virginia and moved to Rutland a year ago in May. It is her 14th or 15th home, she said.
There’s an 1869 historic map of Rutland over a vintage table in her entry hall and Johnson can easily tell the history of the lives that have graced many of the homes on the 54 streets of her historic neighborhood. “I don’t see myself as the owner of this house,” she said. “But rather as a steward for the next set of folks to come along.”
Johnson is always moving and she loves doing things with her hands — sewing, painting, knitting, gardening — and some might see her as a seamstress of torn threads as she mends communities and engages neighbors to build trust.
In 2012 she earned a master’s degree in public policy, peace operations from George Mason University in Washington, D.C., and the following year studied conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason. And this training guides some of her Rutland endeavors.
“Before I came here I talked to a family who had done this in Detroit,” she said.
While Johnson presents the positive of situations, she admits to the challenges of living in Rutland’s southwest, including crime. Nonetheless, she approaches these challenges from a peace-making perspective. And after listening to her neighbors, Johnson, along with several others, founded Historic SW Rutland. “I’m dedicated to putting Historic Southwest Rutland where it should be,” she said. “We want a vibrant community where people want to come live, work and support the future of Rutland.”
In her first several months in Rutland, Johnson has been working with Project VISION and was awarded a mini-grant to further their efforts. And earlier this month along with several others from Historic SW Rutland, she walked the streets hand-delivering nearly 1,500 newsletters.
“Over the years I tried to acquire good listening skills and based on what I hear, I try to come up with ways to help and offer ideas,” she said. “You can’t force a belief on anyone and I don’t come in with a set of wants. I try to hear what others want.”
Early in her career, before the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam conflict, she went to Officer Candidate School, Supply Corps, starting out as an ensign. Out of a class of 722, there were two women.
“At that time women were not allowed on board a ship and so they had to scramble to find two stateside billets for us,” Johnson said. “The other woman got a ship’s store located inside the Pentagon and I got a finance office in Charleston, S.C.”
Johnson was the first female to ever hold a finance billet. She was 24 at the time.
During her time in the Navy, Johnson was in charge of all the payroll — military, civilian and the afloat payroll for those aboard ships — and she said was the division officer for 24 disbursing clerks.
“I learned that the uniform and the rank only get you so far,” she said. “I learned how to work with everyone and recognized the value of what everyone brings to the table.”
Her first husband, Charlie Hoskins, was deployed to Vietnam while she was still an officer in South Carolina. Johnson recalls the moment.
“Charlie was in the Air National Guard and he had just gotten transferred to Richmond, Va., and we were there trying to find him an apartment,” she said. “President Lyndon Johnson came on the television calling up all reservists. His orders were to report in 24 hours.”
So Charlie left and Johnson caught a flight back to South Carolina. “I was in my uniform and went to work the next day in the same uniform.”
But the way Johnson explains it, her military time was only a small part of her life. She has a daughter, Jennifer Hoskins, who still lives in Virginia. “You could say I ran away from home,” she said laughing.
And over the years she’s worked as a reporter, a political activist, a teacher, did peace work in the Philippines, and served on congressional boards, to name a few. She’s run a Georgia horse farm with her second husband Byron Johnson and can easily hoist bales of hay into her trunk.
Johnson’s list of awards and accomplishments could fill hours of conversation, but the one she is most proud of was her appointment by President Ronald Reagan to the National Advisory Council on Volunteers.
“I served through two presidents,” she said.
So today as she sits back and reflects on a full life, she looks forward to her work in Rutland as she starts developing yet another five-year plan.
“My new training in peace operations is all part of the plan,” she said. “I am utilizing that training in a domestic situation right now,” she said.
“My interests cover the map.”
And who knows where she will go next.