A Fond Farewell
A long and illustrious writing career drew to a close last week, as Peggy Johnson penned her final "From These Hills" column.
The popular weekly column first appeared on the pages of the Piggott Times in January of 1984, and more recently has been enjoyed by readers of the Clay County Times-Democrat and those who access the newspaper's website worldwide.
The day after her final column was published Johnson sat down and reminisced on her life and writing career.
"I'm from Caruthersville, and went to school there," she explained. "My future husband, Billy G. Johnson, went to Hayti, but he'd be out there waiting for me when I got out of school in his little truck. They didn't have much, but he had this little truck and he'd get there as fast as he could after school -- he was my one and only."
After school the two married and Billy enlisted in the United States Air Force, and began what became a lifelong career. "He served on a flight crew that re-fueled jets in mid-air on a KC-135 as they were being transported to Vietnam," Peggy reminisced. "Later in his career he taught that, and was one of the instructors for in-flight refueling."
During his years of service Billy spent time overseas in such locales as Guam and Iceland, while Peggy remained on the home front. "My job was to stay at home and support the effort, and I raised our son and daughter."
Peggy points with pride her time as a military wife, and continues to offer assistance as a member of the Gold Star Wives of America. "It's an important organization to me, and it's only open to those who have lost a husband in action or to a service-related illness," she added. "They do such important work, and it just breaks my heart to see those young wives who have lost their husband and are left with little children to raise on their own."
Later, following Billy's retirement, the couple chose to locate at Gosnell, which also led to her first writing job. "Southeast Missouri had always been home, but when we came back we settled in Gosnell and bought a home there," she explained. During these years she also began her writing career, penning feature stories for the Blytheville Courier News. "I wrote feature stories, and also traveled around parts of Southeast Missouri looking for news," she explained.
She also played a large role in efforts to get a tax issue passed in the Blytheville area, which led to the formation of Mississippi County Community College, now known as Northeast Arkansas Community College. "I was really proud to be able to help get the school started," she added.
But life would take yet another route in the early 1980s for the Johnsons. "Then one sunny day my husband decided he was going to move me 'to the hills' and we moved here," she noted. "It took us two years to build our home, and we carried most of it out to the building site by truck. We'd stop at Riggs and get what we needed and come on over here to where the house was, between Piggott and Pollard."
At the time Peggy told her husband she would try life on the ridge for a year, noting if she didn't like it she wanted to move back to Gosnell. "But, I did like it and after that year was over we just stayed on and on," she offered with a smile.
The following year another new chapter began for Peggy, as she started what would become a 31-plus year career with the Piggott Times.
"Ron Kemp had acquired the paper, and asked me if I would write a column and some feature stories," she remembered. "The first story I ever did was on Ronnie Baker, who was a riverboat pilot. He still lives out by Hitts Chapel, and is a member there. I didn't know him at the time, although we later became good friends. I've written a lot of other feature stories, but the first one really stands out in my memory."
Peggy also began writing her weekly columns, but has no idea how many she's penned over the past 31 years. "I remember the first one, it was called "The Special Plate" and was based on my kids." The column, which ran in the Jan. 25, 1984, newspaper, was based on a special plate the family had as Peggy's two children were growing up.
"We only had a four-place service, and one of the plates had been left on the pilot light of the stove and gotten too hot one time -- and it had a little brown spot in the middle," she noted. "It turned out that none of the kids wanted to use the plate. There wasn't anything wrong with it but no one wanted to use it."
Peggy related that one day one of the kids had a bad day at school, "and I told them 'you get to use the special plate.'" She explained to the child that since they were special they would get to use the "special plate." "Later they would argue about who would get to use it, and I wrote my first column about the meaning that it had -- and what it meant to us."
She also remembered another column which she holds dear, concerning her mother and the way she handled the latter stages of Alzheimer's. "During that time I would spend one night and day with her each week, and the column is about how we interacted, it was called 'The Alpha and Omega.'" The column also garnered Peggy a first place award in the statewide contest conducted each year by the Arkansas Press Association.
She also holds a spot in her heart for a column entitled "The Bluebird Legacy" which was written shortly after her husband died. "My husband had just recently passed away, and I wrote this for Valentine's Day --- it still holds a lot of meaning for me," she explained.
Over the decades of writing Peggy has received a lot of feedback from her readers. "One of my favorite comments to hear is when people would come up to me and say I always read your column first," she noted. "Others would come up to me and say how much they enjoyed the column, but to tell the truth a lot of times I didn't have any idea who they were."
As for the immediate future, Peggy has plans to "clean house and do some reading." When pressed she adds, "I don't have something to do. I'm not like these retirees who say they have a plan to do what they want to do, or spend more times with their kids. I always do a lot with my kids, probably too much. But, I plan to just take it easy."
But in all likelihood Peggy's writing days are far from over. "I have thought about writing a book, my daughter has always pushed me to do that," she added. "But I have no future plans."
For Peggy, the decision to end her long-time column was not an easy one. "After doing this for 31 years I began to think it was time to hang it up, and I've been thinking a lot about it since the first of the year," she surmised. "I finally decided it's probably time for someone younger to take my spot."