Shelbyville native Thomas Johnson keeps the past alive

  • Published
  • By 208164
Shelbyville native Thomas Johnson's interest in history began when he was a child, but he acknowledged it took years before he fully appreciated the significance of his passion and found a way to share it with others.

"There was an elderly black gentleman who let me dig on his property for old bottles," recalled Johnson, an Aerospace Testing Alliance utility operator for the cooling water section. "I hated history in school, but I love it now - the seed was planted when I was young. History is the stepping stone to our future."

As Johnson entered his teens, the bottle collection was shelved and things that seemed more important took center stage for the young man.

Upon graduating from Central High School in Shelbyville, he landed a job with American Can as a materials handler. In 1996, he learned of an employment opportunity at Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC).

"Eugene Ray, a good friend, Bedford County Mayor and former AEDC employee, came to me, told me there was a job opening and said he would put in a good word for me," Thomas said. "I was hired shortly afterwards."

Shortly after arriving at Arnold, he got a reality check on the importance of his job.

"I was told when I first came here that if you lose a test, don't bother calling, just take your lunch and go home," he said. "This is a 24/7 job -- sometime the job may seem somewhat lax, but you never know what's going to happen.

"We supply the water to the test cells and support facilities. A big part of your job here is to keep the water as cool as possible, monitor the pressure and every two hours we make the rounds to make sure there is no (oil or fuel) sheen on the ditch or in the water - that is part of our job."

Johnson said the 18 operators must remain vigilant for the unexpected and recently they were put to the test.

"A few days ago, we lost all power at the secondary pumping station," he said.

"When the power went out, we had to start up the other facilities which weren't scheduled to run. We had to conduct emergency procedures to get water to the basins, to try to start the pumps and to save the test. It was a wild three and a half hours during my shift, but thanks to all the operators, our lead and everybody working together, the facilities never knew that we lost power and the test wasn't interrupted."

Thomas said he feels blessed and has a rich and rewarding life, both at work and at home. His interest in history was reignited about 20 years ago when he started collecting antiques again and learned about the role blacks played in the Civil War and in his own community.

He had also become personally acquainted with Vannoy Streeter, a self-taught sculptor in Bedford County who became known nation-wide for his creations fashioned from metal wire and coat hangers.

The artist, who died in 1998, was best known for his depictions of the Tennessee walking horse, but also created art with moving parts - cars with steering wheels that turned front and rear axles and airplanes with turning propellers. Streeter, who was known as "Wireman," was also known for his wire depictions of Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, the Fairfield Four and other iconic performers.

"I've collected his work for years," Thomas said. "He didn't have a lot and he would go to stores and look at toys in the window. He would then go home and make them out of wire - and no one ever taught him. That is what his brothers and sisters got for Christmas. That's what they got for their birthdays and that's what they played with because they couldn't afford any toys."

Thomas was intrigued by a humble and talented man who loved what he did and wasn't in it for money or fame.

"I was impressed by his personality and his love for doing this - you will find his work at the Aquarium in Chattanooga - all over the world," Thomas said. "Oprah Winfrey and her father own some of his pieces and there are four presidents who own his works. When Streeter died, there were people from Germany, Japan, all over the world who came to this man's funeral."

Thomas said Streeter, like many notable artists, would incorporate certain details in their work that made them unique.

"There's a mare that he made and inside that mare was a colt that he made out of real fine copper," Thomas said. "I wish I could find that piece for my collection."

Thomas, who acknowledged he isn't a big fan of reading, said he did read a book by Booker T. Washington that inspired him to learn more about the issue of slavery and the impact the Civil War had on blacks.

Thomas, who said his interest in the Civil War went beyond the role of any one group, was instrumental in purchasing a quilt owned by Flora Stuart, wife of Confederate General James Ewell "Jeb" Stuart. The quilt is available for area museums to exhibit.

About four years ago, Thomas joined the 13th United States Colored Troops (USCT), a local Civil War reenactment group. On a brutally cold February morning in 2006, he and other members of the 13th USCT took part in a dedication of a statue of an African-American infantryman at Nashville's National Cemetery in honor of U.S. black troops buried there.

Along the way, Thomas also started his own business, selling salvaged vintage materials from historic homes.

"When we take these houses down, we're saving a piece of history, a little bit at a time, things like brick work, windows and doors are going into other homes that people can enjoy," he said.

Thomas said the most important aspect of his life is something more personal.
"Besides my family, I've got to say that church is the biggest factor that keeps me grounded," he said. "I'm one of the deacons at my church, the Perfecting Faith Ministry in Nashville."

Thomas also loves to sing.

"That's one of the things that I love doing - I love singing ballads, gospel and occasionally I like the blues," he said. "My late mother, Oarlee Johnson, who sang at churches, weddings and funerals throughout the country was a great gospel singer."

Also, a friend sought out Johnson to add his voice to the sound track for the movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou."

"Thomas is a fantastic singer and a good friend," said Calvin Settles, a Nashville session musician, vocalist and a son of Walter Settles of the Fairfield Four.

"Thomas and I belonged to the same church congregations. We and seven other gentlemen provided the singing, what we call a voice-over, in the movie between the songs that people are familiar with on the CD."