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Lottie Olliff Johnson remembered as Statesboro innovator, entrepreneur
052914 LS LOTTIE JOHNSON 01
In this May file photo, Lottie Johnson, 89, chuckles as she reminisces about he life. Among her many accomplishments, Johnson brought the first 7-Eleven-style convenience store to Statesboro in 1961. The location of the Minit Mart, where Zaxby's is now located on Fair Road, was first occupied by the old Johnson Country Store, background, which now resides behind her most recent home on Grady Johnson Road. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file

In less than a month, Mrs. Lottie Olliff Johnson would have celebrated her 90th birthday. And what a party it most likely would have been.

Short in stature, Mrs. Johnson loomed larger than life to her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, in-laws and a host of other family and friends. Mrs. Johnson died Saturday at Ogeechee Area Hospice.

Lottie and Grady Johnson were the parents of Jackie, who is married to the Rev. Ricky Varnell; Sam, who played football in college, later encouraged the Georgia Southern football program and eventually managed Johnson's Minit Mart; Terry, who is married to the Rev. Terry B. Joyner; and Gary, a popular hair-dresser at 39 South who died at age 41.

In an interview with the Statesboro Herald in May, Mrs. Johnson said she often told others, "I have one son that makes me feel good, one son that makes me look good and two sons-in-law that make me be good."

Sometimes called a "firecracker" because of her energy and exuberance, Mrs. Johnson adored her large family and celebrated everything about each person's life.

Grandson Trey Joyner said: "She has newspaper articles of every recognition of her children and grandchildren framed and duplicates to share with friends. She was so proud of her family and wanted to keep them together, especially at holidays."

Mrs. Johnson celebrated holidays and birthdays in big ways, pushing back furniture to make room for gifts or people or dancing. In fact, she chose to throw herself a huge birthday party over the summer, to celebrate No. 89.

Daughter Terry Joyner said she questioned her mother about the party, asking, "Why 89? Why not a 90th birthday party?"

Through tears, Joyner recalled her mother's answer: "I might not make it to 90."

In her almost-90 years as a resident, Mrs. Johnson watched small-town Statesboro become the booming city it is today, with much of that growth directly credited to Johnson's entrepreneurial discernment.

As reported in the Herald in June, Mrs. Johnson's idea to rent trailer spaces behind the house she shared with her husband, Grady Johnson, became the first mobile home park in Statesboro. Though in a different location now, that same mobile home park stands as Johnson's Mobile Home Court off Fair Road on Grady Johnson Road.

Mrs. Johnson's innovative thinking also brought the first 7-Eleven-style convenience store to Statesboro, when she and her husband opened Johnson's Minit Mart in 1961, on the site of the current Zaxby's Restaurant.

Not stopping there with her "firsts," the Johnsons would soon open a pioneer shopping center of its kind in Statesboro, behind the Minit Mart, still standing as College Plaza on Fair Road.

The vigor that Mrs. Johnson put into life and her 80-hour work weeks at the Minit Mart and managing the mobile home park took a brief reprieve upon the loss of her beloved husband of 56 years, Grady, in 2001.

She recounted in May that her sadness kept her home for a time, but her heart for helping others gave way to a new adventure. Mrs. Johnson started taking tap dance lessons from Reba Barnes, and the two ladies visited nursing homes, dancing, singing and, in her words, "helping the old people exercise." Shag lessons followed with another widower and friend, Mabel Sanders.

Mrs. Johnson took her love of Elvis Presley to nursing homes with her, singing and dancing to "Jailhouse Rock" and others. Great-granddaughter Ella Kay Wayne fondly remembers tap dancing at the age of 4 with her "Nana" at a nursing home.

Granddaughter Tracey Varnell said she plans to honor her grandmother by finding a place to dance in San Francisco, a temporary home where Mrs. Johnson said she spent time with her sister in her early 20s and remembered dancing at the Officer's Club with the soldiers from World War II.

Tracey's mother, Jackie Varnell, said the family was often grateful that Tracey accompanied "Nana" on her dance excursions to Savannah.

"It was like providing Grandma with a chaperone," said Jackie Varnell.

Something grandson Samuel Joyner remembers most about his grandmother was her acceptance of others, no matter their background, and her generosity toward anyone in need. That spirit possibly encouraged the words daughter Terry said she quoted regularly: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything."

Sons-in-law Ricky Varnell, a Methodist pastor, and Terry B. Joyner, a Baptist pastor, lovingly and humorously shared that it required both of them to baptize Mrs. Johnson in her backyard pool, upon her request after her confession of faith in 2009.

Her children and grandchildren are convinced she's dancing in heaven, with husband Grady and son Gary. In fact, Mrs. Johnson practically left her earthly home dancing, as just days before passing away, she swayed and danced exuberantly with her arms in her hospice bed when an Elvis impersonator serenaded her with, "I'm gonna walk them golden stairs when I die."

And when she was too tired to move her arms, her toes continued tapping.

 

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