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A lifetime of memories

At the age of 94, Dunmore resident Dorothy Johnson reflects on her life’s journey – from her time working for the FBI in Washington, D.C., to moving from state to state with her Army husband, Johnny. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Johnson

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

One week after graduating from Marlinton High School, Dunmore resident Dorothy Johnson left her home in Edray and began her career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C.

It was common at that time – the 1940s – for government entities to recruit employees straight out of high school.

“I supposed they came to the school and interviewed the principal on who all would be graduating and everything,” Johnson said. “There were several of us that went, and we didn’t all work for the FBI. One of the girls, that was a good friend of mine, worked for the Department of Agriculture. There were three or four of us that worked at the FBI.”

As the youngest of four children and the youngest girl, Johnson was surprised her parents approved of her leaving home at such a young age to start a career in the U.S. Capitol.

“I am surprised that my mother would even consider letting me leave,” she said. “It was just my mother and I at home. My dad worked away, but he would be there on the weekends. I had three brothers. The youngest was married, so he didn’t have to go in the service, but the other two were in the service.”

As a senior, Johnson remembers that she didn’t really have a career path in mind, but she was certain she did not want to go to college. So, when the FBI asked if she wanted to work in D.C., she said “Yes.”

“It wasn’t that I was so terribly smart or anything like that,” she said. “I wasn’t going to college because I couldn’t afford college, and I was through with school. I had all the school I wanted.”

At that point in her life, the farthest she had traveled from her home in Edray was to Elkins for the Mountain State Forest Festival and while she was a little nervous about moving to the big city, she was excited to become a city girl.

Johnson’s journey to D.C. was sprinkled with good luck. When she boarded the train at Marlinton, she and her friend, Betty Jo Perkins, met a woman from Cass who happened to have a boarding house in D.C. At that particular time, she didn’t have a vacancy, but she invited the girls to stay in touch and she soon became their landlord.

That evening when they arrived in D.C., the lady – Georgia Ryder – shared a taxi with the girls and made sure they arrived safely at their destination.

“She was so friendly,” Johnson said. “When we got to Union Station – we’d probably still have been there [if it wasn’t for her]. Neither one of us had ever done any traveling or anything. We got a taxi together. I was supposed to room with Jewel Fertig – she was my good friend, but she and her neighbor, Margaret Hively, had gone on a couple weeks before, so they were rooming together.”

It was so late when they arrived at the residence where Fertig and Hively were staying, that the girls decided to get a good night’s sleep and work out the logistics later.

Johnson, Perkins and Fertig were eventually able to move into Ryder’s house in southeast Washington D.C., which was closer to their office.

Johnson was employed as a file clerk at the FBI, and she managed mostly criminal files.

“Ours was mostly criminal files,” she said. “When you apply for a job, they take your fingerprints and the fingerprints that were for non-criminals were kept in a different place, but when the file first came into the place, you had to separate them.

“Every once in a while we’d run across someone we knew,” she added.

One of the criminals stood out to Johnson because he was a well-known actor.

“I’ll tell you someone’s file that I ran across, he was very, very popular,” she said. “He was Van Johnson. He was a blonde, and he was in a lot of movies. He got arrested. He was very nice looking. The women were crazy about him. They thought they had a jewel there.”

At work, Johnson remembers that the men in the office were very brotherly to the women and always looked out for them, telling them which areas of the city to avoid.

“When we first went to work for them, they told us ‘You don’t get on this street’ and ‘You don’t go on that street’ because those were the street walkers’ streets,” she said. “They told us what we could do and what we couldn’t do.”

The girls knew where they could go and enjoyed outings into the city to visit museums and watch movies.

“We’d get on streetcars and ride clear over to the northwest,” she said. “We ran around and went to all the museums. It was fun. I loved it up there. I really did.”

While she was working in D.C., there were two events Johnson she will never forget – the day her brother returned from World War II and the day the war ended.

“My brother was in D-Day,” she said. “He received a Purple Heart.

“When he got back from the service, I didn’t know he was coming back. I was at work. They called my name and said, ‘Will you please come up to the office?’ and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what do I have to go up there for?’ I thought I was going to catch something, but there sat my brother.

“The day the war was over – everybody was out in the streets,” she continued. “Boys grabbing girls and kissing them. Everybody was so excited, and we stayed out awhile and then we went to the movies.”

Johnson worked at the FBI for three years, only quitting because she was starting a family with her husband, Johnny Johnson.

“On our first date we went to Glen Echo Amusement Park, and we rode on a roller coaster,” she said. “When we’d get to the end, Johnny would give the guy money, and we’d ride it again. I was glad to get off that thing.”

Johnson said that on that date, Johnny told her “I don’t know when, but I’m going to marry you one of these days.” She thought he was crazy at the time, but, of course, he turned out to be right.

The couple married and had two daughters, Delores and Sharon.

Johnny made a career in the Army, and the family moved around a lot. 

“I’d never go overseas with him,” she said. “If he had to go overseas, I would come back to West Virginia and stay with my parents.”

Despite living in New York, Illinois and Georgia, to name a few, Johnson always felt at home in Pocahontas County.

She was raised between Campbelltown and Edray, the only daughter of George Arnot and Ida Beverage McNeill.

“When I started to school, I walked over a mile to the school and then a mile back in the evenings,” Johnson recalled.  “I had the same teacher for five years because she lived in Edray. I went to Marlinton grade school for two years and then the high school.”

Johnson was raised in the Edray Methodist Church and loved attending services there.

When her husband was deployed to Japan and England, she returned to Edray to raise her daughters and attend her church.
“The last time Johnny went overseas, I came home and stayed with my folks, and I went to work at the El Poca [in Marlinton] for close to three years,” she said. “I loved that. I was the evening cook.”

One year, Johnson was switched to the morning shift, and she had a surprise one particular morning.

“One day, I went in early to cook breakfast,” she said. “They had a fence around that pool and there was a goat in there. A goat. It was walking around the fence trying to find a way to get out.”

Johnson went inside the El Poca to tell Mrs. Sperry, who was there early to make the coffee. She was doing exercises before the restaurant opened.

“When I told her, she was doing bend overs and she fell flat on her back,” Johnson recalled. “[She said] ‘Oh my goodness, those kids from Campbelltown, they’re playing a joke on me.’ She called and told them to come down there and let the goat out.
“I’ll never forget that. It was so funny.”

After 20 years in the service, Johnny retired and the couple chose to remain in Pocahontas County. In 1979, they bought a house in Dunmore and settled into the community.

“We didn’t know a soul when we moved up here,” Johnson said. “He was working at Snowshoe. On Sundays. I’d ride with him over to Edray and go to the Edray Church, and he’d pick me up when he came back. Then we started going to Dunmore [United Methodist Church]. We started up there on Easter Sunday, and then we joined that church. That’s my church now.”

At the age of 94, Johnson reflects on her life and enjoys remembering her time in D.C., but she is also grateful to have returned to her home county.

“I was just pleased to death when I got to leave Marlinton,” she said, “but when you get older, you want to go back to where you were from. I mean, I did. I was always glad to come back. I like it here.”

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