When the calendar turned into 2017, he’d been reporting to his job in the Durham landmark for 56 years. Since right after JFK’s inauguration.
His workplace: The Imperial building on Morris Street, the massive, burgundy brick, one-time U.S. headquarters for Britain’s Imperial Tobacco.
It is now owned by Measurement Inc. (MI), the educational assessment firm and fixture on Morris and Liggett streets.
Donald Wilbert Johnson, called Wilbert, began working at Imperial in 1961, and stayed. Responsible, well-respected, warm, and wise. That’s Wilbert, a man of few words, in a few words.
I worked for MI from 2004 until 2008 and still do some projects for the company – I got to know Wilbert. Recently, I went to visit the slender, soft-spoken man in the Hillandale neighborhood house where he and his wife, Dot, raised three children.
We talked, laughed, looked at photos. He reminisced, with Dot a chair away chiming in. Wilbert was keen and cool as ever.
“Work … that’s what I did from age 17 on,” Wilbert said. “Didn’t know anything else. I liked it.”
Wilbert left all-black Little River High School without graduating. His parents Thaddeus and Alma, with 11 children, needed his help to put food on the table.
On his first job, Wilbert toiled alongside his dad in the heat, cold, rain and storms on a 300-head cattle farm.
After a couple years, he moved on to Imperial, home then to the DC May company. By 1963, Wilbert was full time. He felt at home in the cavernous complex with walls that held so many secrets and still smelled of tobacco.
His first five years, the Imperial building had no gas heat. The furnace was the warmth.
He and a few other fellows showed up at 4:30 every morning. They shoveled coal into wheelbarrows they rolled up to the sprawling piles the train cars dropped onto the pavement right behind Imperial.
The men got the coal inside and into the furnace to supply the day’s energy. After several hours, they’d be swimming in soot. Each had a change of clothes on hand.
“I can still smell that coal, too,” Wilbert says. “Sure, you were tired, but I still had eight hours to go.”
DC May hired Wilbert to be a cloth cutter. Dropcloths. Giant frames with the material stood before Wilbert and five other people all day long, ready to be sliced into shape with large, sharp knives.
He spent 42 years cutting cloth.
“In the early 2000s, I was the last DC May employee in Imperial,” Wilbert said. “I did overnight security as the company was moving equipment out and leaving town.”
Hank Scherich, founder and CEO of MI, bought the building. He’d heard about Wilbert Johnson, who was then about 60.
“I asked someone who knew Wilbert to go over and see him,” Scherich said. “We wanted to know if he’d do security for us, too, as we renovated.”
Didn’t take but a Durham minute for Wilbert to say yes. Later, Scherich stopped by to say hello. He was glad to have Wilbert on board.
“Hank didn’t have to keep me on past that year or so,” Wilbert told me. “That was really fine of him.”
He would move to second-shift security for MI. Wilbert showed up every afternoon just before 3 o’clock, Imperial’s history in his muscles, in his midst.
Last summer, about to turn 75, Wilbert learned the steady pain behind his right eye was serious. A cancerous tumor had formed. It was growing. He got chemo and radiation to try to slow it down.
Until February, he didn’t tell anyone at MI that he was sick. Then one day, he was just too weak to work.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Wilbert said, his voice softer than ever.
The day I sat with him and his wife in Hillandale, Dot said, “We’re praying for a miracle.”
“It’s coming,” Wilbert said.
Death came for Wilbert Johnson on May 6, just 24 days after I’d seen him. At least 250 people attended his funeral at Cameron Grove Baptist Church.
All of Durham should be incredibly proud of this man, so steady and true. The unassuming, gracious guy who punched a clock in one place for almost 60 years.
I can hear the train rumbling by Imperial every few hours day after day. It’s not the same without Wilbert Johnson near.