Ed Johnson, Maker of Men


By Jock Lauterer

It’s another weekly Scout meeting for Troop 39 in 1959 down in the basement of the Chapel Hill University Methodist Church; time for a little jocularity. Six uniformed lads, clambering on one-another, quickly form a human pyramid and pose for Scoutmaster Ed Johnson to make the photograph. Click!

This scribbler, bottom row, far left, at 14, is the youngest of the cohort; the rest of the Scouts are, from left to right: Robert Crook and Joe Moore; middle row: Tim Hubbard and David Radford. That’s John Allcott on top.

As I write this piece on February 8, it’s official Scouting Anniversary Day, when I am drawn magnetically to this playful snapshot for its deeper contextual meaning. As a wise photographer once noted, “The camera points both ways.” So, we six are straining to please Ed, the Man, our mentor, coach, teacher, leader, sensei, Yoda. Our North Star.

The positive impact of Scoutmaster Johnson on the life of an old Eagle Scout cannot be overstated. Raised in Chapel Hill by a single mother of modest resources, and with no male role model at home, this Tenderfoot was in sore need of an exemplar—a father-figure to emulate, a benevolent someone who would give the adolescent a vision of what it meant to be a man.

And that man was Ed Johnson, who, as a psychology grad student at UNC, served as our Scoutmaster in the mid to late ’50s.

When Ed died in early December at 89, his passing forced me to focus on all the good that the man brought to my life and into that of other young boys in our outfit. For I’m sure I speak for scores of “Boyz II Men,” if you will, who flourished under his calm, dependable, unflappable, solid demeanor.

Additionally, one of Ed’s greatest gifts was that he passed on to us the inspiration by example to “pay it forward”—without self-seeking fanfare, to make a difference, to do much more than just the requisite “a good deed daily.”

So how fortunate was I that when Lynne and I moved back to Chapel Hill in ’01, I was able to find Ed Johnson and have a heartfelt visit at his unique deck house west of Carrboro overlooking Cane Creek and a clear-running waterfall from the nearby mill pond and the rock dam he rebuilt by hand. I wanted to express my gratitude to him in person, mano a mano—me at 56 and Ed at 68—for his impactful presence in this boy’s life at a particularly needy time.

Ed, being Ed, wouldn’t let me leave without another gift: the accompanying picture from his voluminous collection of photographic slides he had shot and catalogued over the years.

Now, as an old “perfesser,” I know there’s no greater teaching award than for a former student to return years later to thank you for something you’d said, taught or modeled that changed his or her life.

It may seem like a small thing, but actually knowing how to start a camp fire in a downpour or in the dead of winter can be a lifesaver. Ed knew the secret sauce and taught it to us: the inside of a dead red cedar tree—plentiful in these parts—when split into small pieces, will light with a single match. Once, when hiking and camping in Linville Gorge with a friend and caught in unexpected sub-freezing temperatures overnight, I was able to get the morning fire going, in spite of numb fingers and my camping buddy about to have a panic attack.  Ed’s lesson on firebuilding may have actually saved our lives.

Tonight, as I lay the evening fire in the fireplace, I begin with a large backlog of dried split white oak; then, a single page of crumpled up newsprint, and finally I add slivers of red cedar. It still takes only one match.

Ed’s flame lives on.

(Author’s note: For more depth, read the excellent obituary on Ed Johnson in The Local Reporter.)

Jock Lauterer is a longtime photojournalist, honored in 2020 by PEN America as a “Local Journalist Hero. He is a senior lecturer at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and is the retired founding director of the school’s Carolina Community Media Project. The author of six books, Jock is also the winner of the 1998 National Geographic Magazine Faculty Fellowship, among his many accolades.

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