“My ‘Best’ Friend Mae,” column for March 17, 2015

Memorial services are not my idea of a good time. But a life well lived is cause to celebrate.

Mae Carol Johnson grew up in the 1930s in Columbus, Ga., a beloved child of the segregated South with three strikes against her odds for a brighter future: She was poor, black and female.

For some reason _ possibly the example set by an adoring grandmother, who was a midwife and prayer warrior of absolute faith _ Mae never worried much about odds. She finished college, married a young soldier and in 1954, they moved to California’s Monterey Peninsula, where Mae took the only job she could find, working in the laundry at Fort Ord.

Ten years later, she was a divorced single mother with six little children to raise alone.

“I don’t know how she did it,” said her son, Ron Johnson. “She worked all day, went to school at night and took care of us kids. Somehow, she got it all done.”

Mae earned a teaching credential and began her career in education as a substitute teacher, then worked her way up the ranks as a counselor and administrator to become the first female principal at Monterey High School.

My late husband was then a teacher and coach at the school. Usually a man of few words, he had plenty to say about the new principal _ all good. When I met her, I saw why.

She told me she adored him because every day when she left school, his car was the only one still in the parking lot. I said he adored her because of her smile. She gave that smile to me with one of her hugs (when Mae hugged you, you knew you’d been hugged) and with that, we were “best” friends.

Far more than my husband’s boss or my children’s high school principal, Mae would be, for me, a role model, a fount of wisdom, laughter and grace.

We spent very little time together. I was busy with my life. And she was busy changing the world. Some people are like that. You don’t need a lot of their time. You just need to watch them. I watched her from afar and loved her all the more.

When my husband died of cancer, Mae called in tears to say her heart was broken. She said other things, too, fine words that helped to heal me.

The last time I saw her was a few years ago. We met for lunch with another friend, ate fried calamari and laughed. She promised to try to visit me and my new husband at our home in Las Vegas. And in return, she made me promise to finish a book I’d been stalling on.

That is who she was. She set a high bar, demanded your best and somehow tricked you into believing you could do it.

News of her death last month brought to mind the words she had said after my husband died: “Our loss is Heaven’s gain.”

At her memorial service, I sat listening with hundreds of others _ family, friends, former teachers and students _ as a series of dignitaries recounted her many accomplishments.

I wish you could’ve heard them. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described Mae’s story as an example of the American dream, and said the true measure of her life was in the difference that she made.

Others spoke of her dignity, her “toughness,” her unfailing sense of peace. But speakers and listeners alike, with “amens” and nodding smiles and bursts of applause, testified to her love.

Then her son Ron said this: His mother loved all people, but she had a gift for making ordinary people feel important.

I can testify to that. I’m one of the ordinary people she made feel important. We didn’t know each other well, Mae and I, but we were surely “best” friends.

In her 82 years, Mae Johnson touched countless lives. She made a difference. That’s the legacy of a good life and a gifted teacher. I suspect we were all blessed to be her “best” friends.

No matter. She liked me best.


  1. Gina Herren-Pope says

    Beautifully written Mrs. Randall! Thank you. .Mrs. Johnson once told me to “make goals (and live) with expectancy,” and you’re article shows she lived as she advised…she was an amazing woman, as are you.

  2. Bob DeWeese says

    It would have nice to have seen you there at the memorial service. I remember when I was on a committee to interview to pick a principal for what then was King Middle School…. maybe then King Junior High? I was the only one who voted for Mae to be the principal. I think that the person who got hired only lasted one year. Mae was put in there to take his place.

    Bob DeWeese

  3. And now, thanks to you, dear Sharon, we don’t have to wish that we knew Mae. You have just introduced her to us in a most gracious, loving fashion, just the way a best friend would.


  4. Linda Hill says

    you did it again, brought me to tears. Keep it up. Tears are to the soul what soap is to the body. I guess my soul wax a bit dirty today.

  5. Andy Bedell says

    You really spoke to Mae’s impact on people and character, Sharon. I first met her when she served as an assistant principal in the early 1970’s. She was a courageous administrator who had tremendous clarity when it came to impacting people’s lives. She was also very civil, at all times a lady. She was a person whose actions I always admired during my life as a teacher, coach, and later, an administrator. Most importantly, she always gave young people a chance. Thank you for honoring her.

  6. God bless this great teacher and Sharon who knew her and now we all know her too because Sharon knows how to touch so many more people by her beautiful columns . Lot of love .

  7. Antoinette Cox says

    What a lovely tribute for a lovely lady who touched so many lives with her goodness and understanding.

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