"A pillar in our community": Jerry Johnston, longtime Braman mayor, dies at 85
Jerry Johnston, the longtime mayor of Braman called “Mr. Mayor” and who was known for his friendships with community members, elected officials and others across Oklahoma, died Tuesday at Stillwater Regional Medical Center – Blackwell. He was 85.
Johnston served as Braman’s mayor for 28 years from 1983 to 2011, following in the footsteps of his father, who served as mayor for 40 years. Johnston built lasting relationships with the people he met, his family members and friends say, and his life was defined by his passion for the small community in northern Oklahoma that he led and loved.
Johnston was named Oklahoma’s Mayor of the Year in 1998 by the Oklahoma Municipal League, a legislative advocacy organization representing hundreds of Oklahoma cities and towns. Johnston served as president of the organization from 1994 to 1996, and under his leadership, the organization’s membership increased.
Johnston was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame for City and Town Officials in 2003. When he was inducted, he joked that he served as Braman’s mayor because he had a “genetic deficiency” passed down by his father and predecessor as mayor, Ed Johnston.
Jerry Johnston’s sense of humor was one of the qualities that endeared him to people around the country, friends and family members say. They say he never met a stranger.
“He was everybody’s friend,” said Phyllis Grell, who attended school with Johnston. “He never knew anybody he didn’t like, I don’t think. He was just always keeping everyone on the right road.”
Johnston was born Feb. 1, 1935 in Braman in a house one block north of the home he lived in for most of his adult life. His father owned a grain company in Braman, Johnston Grain. Jerry Johnston obtained a degree in agriculture from Oklahoma State University in 1957 and returned to Braman to run the family’s grain business, beginning a lifetime of service to his hometown.
Grell said she remembers Johnston as being ornery growing up, bringing joy to those around him. “He’s always hugging somebody,” she said with a laugh. “He’s just lovey-dovey.”
BIG IMPACT IN A SMALL TOWN
As mayor, Johnston secured numerous grants for the town to use in improving its infrastructure, including roads and electrical systems. Marvin “Marv” Sandbek, who served as Braman’s mayor in 2019, said Johnston was his role model.
“There is only one Mr. Mayor, and that’s Jerry Johnston,” Sandbek said. “I learned a great deal from Jerry. Mostly, I learned how to try to emulate his tremendous ability to build relationships. Jerry was a magician at that. Everybody loved him. He was an amazing guy. Never once did I ever hear him raise his voice. He was a ‘get ‘er done’ kind of guy, and he inspired people to do their best, me included.”
Another person Johnston inspired was Dale DeWitt, a longtime state legislator in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. DeWitt represented District 38, which includes Braman, in the House from 2002 to 2014. He said Johnston – whom he called a “pillar in our community” – motivated him to run for the office.
“When I got ready to retire from teaching, Jerry talked me into running for the House,” DeWitt said. “He came to me and basically said, ‘We need you down at [Oklahoma City]. I want you to run.’ I told him I’d have to think about it, and he said, ‘You’ve got one hour.’ I was eligible to retire from teaching, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll run.’ He was behind me all the way. Anything I needed during that campaign, he was there to help me.”
Ponca City Mayor Homer Nicholson echoed those sentiments. Nicholson has served on various boards with Johnston, and the two helped establish the Kay County Mayor’s Roundtable, a monthly meeting bringing together the county’s mayors to discuss issues they face in their communities.
“Braman would not be Braman today without Jerry Johnston’s leadership,” Nicholson said. “I know he got tons of grants for various projects and kept Braman going. He was a one-man show, and he kept Braman in business.
“He was a spark plug. He was always ready to do anything and everything at any time. He’s a hero. He’s well-known in municipal circles across the state. … He’s actually a hero for Kay County. I have to look up to Jerry Johnston.”
FUNCTIONAL, NOT FLASHY
Johnston took a frugal approach to government, his family said. Some of his chief accomplishments as mayor include building a new sewer lagoon for the town, constructing new water lines and fire hydrants, purchasing new trucks for the fire department and building a new Town Hall.
His decisions weren’t always popular, but they were important and lasting, his family says.
“A lot of what he did was not flashy or visible necessarily,” Johnston’s granddaughter, Ashley Swart, said. “It was useful and served a purpose. But telling someone they’re getting a sewer lagoon versus a brand-new paved street, they just don’t see it. So, I think that was an obstacle for him.”
Johnston was known as “the face of Braman,” and he was never afraid to stand up for the rights of small towns, his family says. But he wasn’t the only Johnston working for Braman’s betterment, his family says.
Johnston attended leadership conventions across the nation, and he served on various regulatory boards, including the Department of Environmental Quality’s board of directors. Johnston advocated for “common-sense” environmental regulations that wouldn’t financially burden small towns.
“He wasn’t afraid to get in the middle of a meeting and say, ‘What you’re saying is not going to work, or ‘What you’re saying is not true,’” his daughter, JJ Stevak, said. “But he would always do it without making the other person mad at him, which was one of his good qualities. He might disagree with you in a board meeting. … But he would usually do it in such a way that the people he was disagreeing with wouldn’t feel like he was fighting with them or putting him down.”
Johnston’s son, Craige Johnston, said his father thoroughly studied the subjects he was discussing at meetings – with the help and guidance of his wife, Marilyn Johnston, who is now deceased.
“They were a symbiotic relationship,” he said. “Between the two of them, they were very formidable in their knowledge and ability to do those things. He technically was the one on the boards, but she went to all the meetings, and she knew all the questions.”
Few women were in municipal leadership positions across the nation during the 1980s and 1990s, Craige Johnston said. He said his father viewed his mother’s role in government – and in their family – co-equally, crediting her with helping shape his vision for the community. While Jerry was mayor, Marilyn managed the town’s payroll and bookkeeping. The two also worked together to request grants for the city to help pay for infrastructure projects.
“It really was a perfect partnership of what they were doing,” Stevak said. “Between the two of them, they kept things going.”
‘THE SWEETEST, KINDEST GUY’
Johnston had a friendly and charming personality, his family and friends say. He complimented people profusely, and always with sincerity, they say.
Johnston was a member of the Braman United Methodist Church, where he sang in the choir and socialized with his fellow Bramanites.
“I always remember him in church,” Trudy Rowe, one of Johnston’s close friends, said. “Instead of just going from singing, he’d come down, and he’d go the long way around so that he could touch everybody and shake their hand, and tell all the women how nice they looked. Of course, I was one who always got a little hug on the cheek, bless his heart.
“He always had a smile on his face, always was there to help anybody that needed help. He was quite the people-person. He liked his people.”
Rowe said she thinks of Johnston as a father-figure, she said.
“He was just the sweetest, kindest guy,” Rowe said. “He’d do anything for you. I kind of have to admit, I think I was his favorite. We went way back when I went to school with his daughter. We just had a lot of good fun there growing up. … He’s just a good soul. They don’t make them like him anymore.”
Johnston was proud of the close relationships people in Braman have with one another, and he believed the community was a friendly one, he said in a newspaper story written about Braman.
“We’re mostly about friends and family,” Johnston said in a 2002 interview with The Oklahoman newspaper. “You can come downtown and drink coffee with us in the morning, and it would be hard to tell the difference between the people with two or three million dollars and the people who aren’t financially worth anything.”
“We want a place where our kids want to come back to,” Johnston told The Oklahoman. “Being a small town, things have always been tough for us. So we understand tough times. We just don’t do anything we can’t pay for. We are all very proud of our town.”
FORMER GOV. MARY FALLIN: JOHNSTON ‘A GREAT MAN’
Former Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin met Johnston when she inducted him into the Hall of Fame for City and Town Officials. At the time, Fallin was Lt. Gov.
“He was always a friend to a friend,” Fallin said. “You always felt like you’d known him for a very long time. Even though you might only see him on occasion, maybe only once a year or so in my position in Oklahoma City, I always felt like I knew him as a close friend.”
Fallin said she respected Johnston’s penchant for leadership.
“I think one of the reasons I have such a strong liking and affection for him was that my dad and my mother, when I grew up in Tecumseh, which was only 2,000 people, both served as mayors at different times, and Jerry just reminded me of my parents and their love of community and public service,” Fallin said. “I just always had a great respect for him, especially being from a small community and wanting to give his time and effort to steer everything he could to make his community better.”
LUCAS, INHOFE MOURN LOSS OF FRIEND
Johnston never passed up the opportunity to meet new people, especially people who could help him find grants to improve Braman’s infrastructure, his family said.
Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas told The Journal-Tribune that Johnston dedicated his life to Braman’s betterment.
“I’m deeply saddened to hear of the passing of a friend and Braman leader, former Mayor Jerry Johnston,” Lucas said in a written statement to The Journal-Tribune. “Following in the footsteps of his father, who was also a mayor of Braman, Jerry always spoke of his community with a sense of pride. For nearly 20 years, he served with only one goal: to leave behind a better community for those who call Braman home.
“I’ll always appreciate the friendship that Mayor Johnston and I shared, and I pray for comfort for his family, friends, and the Braman community.”
Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe said he considered Johnston a close friend.
“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Jerry Johnston of Braman today,” Inhofe said in a statement. “Jerry was everything you want in a mayor – selfless, principled and committed to working for all families in Braman. For him, it wasn’t a job – it was a mission. I was honored to call him a friend.
“When he was being inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame for City and Town Officials all the way back in 2003, I described him as ‘the salt of the Earth in the true Biblical meaning and the hope of America.’ That is still just as true today as it was then. Jerry knew the Lord and knew the importance of that. Kay and I join his family in their grief as they mourn a remarkable public servant.”
ABOVE ALL, A LOVING FATHER AND HUSBAND
Johnston was a busy man, serving on multiple community boards and involving himself in various civic events. However, he always made time to spend with his family.
“He worked hard, but he also spent time with us and played hard,” JJ Stevak, his daughter, said. “Some of that time he spent with us, we were all working at the grain company. But he was always there at anything you went to, anything you did. He was always there, right behind you, supporting you.”
Marilyn Johnston died in 2009, the same year former Blackwell City Manager Sally Norris’s husband died. Johnston and Norris had known each other for years through their work in municipal government. In February 2014, Jerry Johnston was at a meeting in the Blackwell City Hall when he saw Sally leaving her office.
“After we had both been widowers for about five years, he came in to the City Hall at Blackwell one day, and I was walking to the door as he was coming in the door,” Sally said. “He said, ‘What are you doing to have fun?’ I said, ‘Well, nothing. What are you doing?’ … He said, ‘Well, then let’s change that.’”
Johnston called Sally two weeks later, saying he had summoned the courage to call her – and that he had finally found her phone number. The two were married in June of that year.
“I always admired him,” Sally said. “In fact, one time, when he was the Mayor of the Year, I wrote him a letter. I had even forgotten about this, and I found it in some of his stuff that he had. I told him that I wanted to be like him, that he was my hero. He really was.
“I don’t know how he was so perfect. He really, really was.”
Johnston’s children said their father never let his work for the town of Braman interrupt their relationship with him, saying he was a “hugger” who told them that he loved them.
Though Johnston is gone, his legacy will live on not just in Braman, but in the hearts of those he inspired, his family said.
Sally likened his life to the main character of a TV show.
“His life was a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ world,” Sally said. “That was always the way that it came out. He moved one block down the street, and he was able to live life almost perfectly, I think, because he gave so much of himself. He was ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ Everything, in the end, was good.”
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