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Inside Bulloch Business with DeWayne Grice - Lee Johnson: Man with an incredible heart
Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson

Business Ticker
• Galactic Comics and Games has relocated from its original location at 25 Seibald St. to 20 E. Vine St. It is behind Sea Island Bank's downtown drive-thru in the former Pawn City building. The new expanded location gives the business greater visibility and more expanded parking. Call Galactic at (912) 489-3123.

Some men farm for a living, and others live to farm.

When Lee Johnson was growing up, farming was a way of survival. He had to drop out of Pope Academy after the third grade, when his father became ill, to help his mother support the family. His dad died at 43 from a heart attack. His first job was working for Donald Wayne Akins on his farm, making $2 per day. Later he moved to Tampa, Florida, to work in the potato houses.

The work was hard and the hours were long, and he soon discovered that he would never find his fortune in Tampa. The best thing he discovered there, he said, was his wife of 52 years, Verna Mae.

Johnson convinced her to follow him back to Statesboro. He returned to work a construction job building the original Holiday Inn (now the Quality Inn) on South Main Street. At 19, Johnson never imagined that short-term construction job would turn into a career that would set his future. After the construction was complete, Mr. Albert Heath hired Lee on as the full-time maintenance man. It was a job he held for 25 years.

"Fred Page and I worked with Lee through high school and college," said Richard Mallard, district attorney for the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit. "He led by example and remains one of the hardest working guys I know. I consider him and his wife, Verna Mae, to be two of my closest friends."

Johnson began a part-time cleaning service while he worked for the Holiday Inn. Local businessman Howard Price, the owner of Arrow Rentals, convinced Lee to join him and Charles Best in founding Statesboro Janitorial, Statesboro's first professional janitorial service.

After struggling to build the business, they sold it to Johnson. Johnson would join Charles and Willard in becoming the owners of three of the city's first African-American-owned businesses.

Lee and Verna Mae raised three of his siblings after their mother's death: Carl, Roosevelt and Larry. Carl joined Lee in the business after he came back home from his tour of duty with the military.

"Carl and I worked hard to build the business," Lee Johnson said. "Sea Island Bank was our first bank customer. Dick Burnette helped us get the cleaning contracts with all the other banks and a lot of other businesses in town. He really believed in us and helped us gain the trust of the community. After all these years, Sea Island remains a loyal customer as does charter clients Robbie Franklin and Dan Cook at Franklin's Automotive Group."

The business really grew until the recession took hold in 2008.

"Office cleaning was an area many companies cut out or insourced to employees in the business," Johnson said. "That, combined with increased competition, has really impacted the company. We remain at about 12 employees and are blessed to have a stable and loyal client base."

His tattered fleet of mismatched vehicles all have his slogan "we mean to clean" hand painted on them.

Their first storefront was located in the former City Dairy building at the corner of West Main and College streets. After the city purchased that property to build a parking lot, they relocated to the current location at 402 W. Main St. near Julia P. Bryant Elementary School.

Johnson can often be found these days next to the building and across the street tending to his gardens. If you have driven by, chances are you have seen him out there working. I don't think there is a more loved garden in the county. He takes great pride in the nearly 10 acres he farms.

"I started with a little two-acre garden in Whitesville in 1970 tending to it completely with a tiller," he said. I grew vegetables for my family and a few friends. The more I grew the more I discovered people in need. When we moved to our current location, I was able to purchase a tractor. Mr. Charles Mallard allows me to farm part of his land across the road from my shop for free."

Two things you will notice when you drive by the building are the oddly dressed and a bit scary mannequins in his windows and large signs with vegetable names on them, like "Sweet Potatoes," "Collards" or "Corn."

The signs let passersby know what freshly picked items he has available to purchase. He sells enough produce out of his store to mostly cover the cost of the gardens. However, out of these gardens, he feeds a phenomenal amount of people in our community for free.

"As long as I am able and have my health and the money to cover it, you will find me in my garden working to ensure that no family in our town ever has the fear I faced as a child of being hungry," Johnson said.

You never see Lee without his signature smile and a kind, complimentary word.

Richard Mallard nailed it. There is not a harder working nor kinder man in our town. Johnson is not a man of many words but he makes up for it with his gentle demeanor and incredible heart.

Please email DeWayne at dgrice@statesboroherald.com or give him a call at (912) 489-9499.

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