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Johnson, Wayne & Norma

by from an oral interview with Dee Williams

Born in Waynoka, Oklahoma, in 1909, I came to Alaska in 1937. Having “ridden the rails,” I was working in the Seattle area for the Army running their dry cleaning and tailoring plant. It came around October, and I decided to go back to Los Angeles where I had been for several years. I thought before I left, I should go down and thank the lady at the Union Hall for helping me get my job. She then told me of a lady that had come in the day before looking for a man to go to Alaska and run a dry cleaning plant there. She gave me the lady’s name and number at the hotel where she was staying. I decided I would go by and talk to the lady, as I wanted to know more about Alaska, but I sure wouldn’t want to live there. The lady turned out to be Hermia Darnell, whose husband, Rod Darnell had bought the Triangle Cleaners in Juneau. He had been working at the Alaska Laundry for the MacKinnons when he purchased the Triangle Cleaners, and he didn’t know much about the cleaning business. I really wanted to head south for the winter, but Hermie could talk, and in a few days I was on the old steamer, Yukon, headed for Juneau. I arrived and got off the boat and looked up at the mountains in the rain and thought, “What have I done?” I got up here and there was no way out of this country except by boat, and I didn’t have any money for a ticket back. So I had no choice but to go to work for a month and earn a wage to buy my ticket out of here. I went to the Gastineau Hotel and stayed the night. The next morning I went downstairs and had breakfast which cost me a dollar where I had been used to paying 15-20 cents down south. I thought, “Boy, I’ve got to get out of here awfully fast.” I went over to the shop and met Darnell and went to work for him and after a week or so, I began to like the place, so I just stayed on. The economy was good and delivering laundry, I received good tips. After the first of the year, I got sick and had to be operated on. Dr. Carter took out my appendix.

The assistant keeper of the Point Retreat light station had to go to Tenakee because he was sick, so I took the job at the lighthouse. I was there the winter of 1938, until the following spring. I had a letter of recommendation and wanted to go up on the Bering Coast where there were two lighthouses. In those days, if you went for three years, they would give you a year off with pay. I thought it would be wonderful to have a year off with pay. I made a hundred dollars a month. Instead, upon returning to Juneau, I went back to work for Rod Darnell, until I started fishing for a living.

Norma and I were married in 1945, in Douglas by Felix Gray at his home. She was in Portland, Oregon, working for Fred Meyers Company when Wallace George, who built the Baranof Hotel here in Juneau, hired her to come up to work for him in 1938. The war had started, so business was good as the place was filling up with soldiers. Before that, it was a miners’ town. Norma, being a good sport, spent our threemonth honeymoon commercial fishing with me.

I met Milt Daniels who had Snow White Laundry where the old police station was. I went into partnership with him for two years until I started the City Dry Cleaners where the Red Dog Saloon is now. Milt went south, so I bought him out. Norma and I were down there on the corner for thirty years in the City Dry Cleaners business.

In the meantime, I was on the City Council in 1958-59, and when Larry Parker left, I became Mayor in 1961-62. I stayed in Juneau politics for some years and worked for Mike Gravel in his office in the Federal Building here. I was involved in several things developing the City of Juneau, and worked for Parker when he was mayor. We had those “move the Capitol” fights, and I was involved up to my neck traveling all over the state (Kodiak, Anchorage and Cordovaz) encouraging the vote in our favor. About five years ago, I had a stroke from all the stress.

My father was born in Tennessee in 1848. My grandparents Overstreet were from Missouri. My mother was born in Berryville, Arkansas, and grew up there. My dad went to Arkansas and met my mom there They said we were Scotch-Irish, but I don’t know, I’ve just always thought of myself as an Okie.

One of the best Wayne Johnson stories was about the dead bear that roared:

Johnson said he had a pact with the bears — if they didn’t try to eat him, he wouldn’t shoot them. But on a deer hunting trip with Norma and Fred and Pearl Slagle, he met a bear on the trail that threatened to renege on this pact, so Johnson had to shoot him. The next morning they went back prepared to skin the bear, but as they rolled him over on his back, he let out a horrific roar that shook the trees and them. “We thought that bear had come to life.”

Wayne and Norma Jane Johnson, summer 1991, Mendenhall Glacier.

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