Avery Johnson sees Cleveland through changes big and small

By Linda Bryant

Most communities have at least one resident who can speak about bygone days as well as current times with so much knowledge and authority that almost everyone responds with deep respect and admiration.

Hands-down Avery Johnson fills that role in Cleveland and Bradley County.
Johnson has been working and serving the region for decades. He has gone from attending school and working during a time when, as an African American, he was required to use separate water fountains, bathrooms — even a separate bus station — to serving in many key leadership roles, including vice mayor and councilman at-large in the Cleveland City Council.

Johnson showed leadership qualities early in life, and although he wanted to pursue a rigorous education after high school, his ambitions were whittled down because he needed to help his mom, who was a single parent. He went to work for Magic Chef, the storied Cleveland-based company that is now Whirlpool Corporation, at the age of 19, worked his way up to various positions for more than 43 years. All the while, Johnson educated himself wherever and whenever he could, joined key community organizations, and set about making Cleveland a better place to live for all.

Bill Estes, city councilman and dean of the Helen DeVos College of Education at Lee University, says Johnson is widely revered as a trusted leader in the community.
“Avery Johnson is much more than a pillar of the Cleveland community,” Estes said. “Yes, he is foundational to both our past and who we are today, but I am continually amazed at his energy and vision in making Cleveland stronger in both the near and long-term. From his decades of service to one of our manufacturing companies, to his service to the local school board, to his representing all of Cleveland at-large on the city council, Avery continues with a very unique and personal skill set to unite all of our community as we work through the issues in municipal government.

“He has the institutional knowledge combined with the personal integrity to give all of us both direction and courage to serve the entire community in our duties,” Estes added. “He’s never afraid to question, nor to listen. I can’t imagine a Cleveland without his leadership.”

TT&C: Describe your history and roots in Cleveland. Tell us about growing up in the area and give a few details about your family.
AJ: My grandmother, mom and family moved to Cleveland in 1938 from Hollywood, Ala. My grandmother, whose maiden name was Dovie Cobb, opened a restaurant known as the Eveready Cafe on East Inman Street around 1939. I was born in the early 1940s and graduated from College Hill High School with honors. I was president of the student council, editor-in-chief of my class yearbook, and also played football. I worked everyday after school at Watson Grocery, Simon Grocery, and Cedar Lane Restaurant. Sometimes I worked for the janitor cleaning up after school.
I have two sons. My oldest son, Avery Jr., has his own music studio in Atlanta. He’s traveled all over the world and toured with BeBe & CeCe Winans and with Bobby Jones out of Nashville. My youngest son, Sean, is also musically inclined, and he’s a juvenile correctional officer. They are both great kids, and they have never been in any trouble. I lost my first wife in 2011, and we were married for 49 years. I’ve remarried again and have gotten lucky twice. I have two grandsons, and they are the best grandsons in the world.

TT&C: You have been on the Cleveland City Council since 1993. Thinking back, what inspired you to run for office?
AJ: I was always involved in community services. I was a member of the Citizens Improvement League when I was 19 years old, which meant listening to people twice my age talking about segregation issues and discrimination problems. In 1992, I was asked to serve on the Charter Study Commission to look at the different forms of governments and decide which form of government best fit the city of Cleveland. After our recommendation passed on a referendum in the 1993 elections, I was asked to serve as a city councilman. At that time, we were appointed for two years. Under the council-manager form of government we needed three additional council members. I was appointed for the first two years, and after that I was hooked like a fish and have run six times and won six times. Hallelujah!

TT&C: What professional interests and jobs have occupied you over the years?
AJ: I worked for Magic Chef Inc./Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products/Whirlpool Corp. for 43 years and eight months. [The company changed names because of corporate acquisitions.] I actually started out working in the garage department washing trucks and changing the names on tractors and trailers from Dixie Products to Magic Chef Inc. I was 19 at the time. When I retired in 2005, I was superintendent of the shipping and warehouse department. I was a molder in the foundry for seven years, grinder and sand blast machine operator for three years, assembly line supervisor, general foreman in the electric range department and team process coordinator.

TT&C: Is there anything about your career at Maytag that helped you prepare as a public servant?
AJ: Everything about Maytag prepared me because I took all the training that they offered — all the workshops and seminars. I went to Middle Tennessee State University for training; I went to the University of Tennessee for training; and I also went to Black Mountain, N.C., for a leadership conference. Plus, I gained a lot of experience as a supervisor and general foreman. I spent five years working on and off in HR. All of this contributed to the success I’ve had in the community.
I really got lucky with Maytag because when I got out of high school I didn’t have money for college. I had to go to work and help my mom because she was a single-parent. I worked and went to night school at Cleveland State and got whatever I could for education. I was very studious when I was in school. I took all of it, everything that I could. Plus, I read a lot of books.

TT&C: What is the most important book that you’ve read?
AJ: My favorite book is by Congressman John Lewis called Walking with the Wind. Lord have mercy, there are so many books that I have read! Reading has taught me a lot of lessons in life to live by, especially leadership books.

TT&C: Can you share some impressions of living and working during the Civil Rights era?
AJ: I was very involved. There were a lot of things going on especially in Alabama and Mississippi; we just didn’t talk about it much. We were very much in tune here in Cleveland with what was taking place both here and all over the world. Race relations here in Cleveland were pretty good. People wanted better opportunities and equal rights for everybody. I really do think the majority of the people really did want that here in Cleveland, but we were just watching the rest of the world. Every time somebody had an opportunity to make a difference here in Cleveland they did. I was proud of the way people here acted, even though we still had some discriminatory practices going on. The great company I worked for years, Magic Chef, had separate water fountains and restrooms. The bus stations here in Cleveland were separate. It was very much like that when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. It was called equal, but it wasn’t really equal. It was amazing to live through this time when everything changed and so much of it for the better.

TT&C: Did you ever have a hard campaign or a tough race?
AJ: Every race was a challenge, except for one when I didn’t have an opponent running against me. There was always opposition. I had worked at Maytag for a long time and knew a lot of people and had a lot of friends, black and white, and it paid off. I was also involved in community services. I’ve always been trying to do something that makes a difference since I was 19. I understood early on what the issues were, and I served on a lot of boards and have been in all types of civic organizations — the United Way Board, American Red Cross, the Gideons, and others. I was president of the Lions Club twice.

TT&C: It sounds like you worked hard for those campaigns and those wins.
AJ: Oh yes, I knocked on a lot of doors. My brother and I went through my entire district knocking on doors and asking people to vote for me. It was a good feeling to be out there campaigning. That was one of the joys I really got out of the whole process — getting to know the community and people. I represented District 3 until the last few years. Now, I’m a councilman at-large.

TT&C: Was it hard to hold down a full-time job and still have your civic responsibilities?
AJ: Not really because the people I worked for were very proud of me running for office and wanted to support me. My company was always involved in the community, and there were other people besides me from Maytag and Magic Chef active in the community, especially when the Rymers owned the company.

TT&C: Cleveland is growing and changing rapidly, but it must have been very different back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Did you always have the feeling that Cleveland could grow into what it is now? What were the most important issues back then?
AJ: I have always had confidence in the people of Cleveland. Those in the old commission form of government had their hands full keeping up with the growth and development on the north and west side of Cleveland. Things were changing everywhere. The east and south side of Cleveland suffered as victims of budget cuts and a slow economy. Small businesses were beginning to leave neighborhoods in east and south Cleveland. Jobs were sometimes uncertain and layoffs always a threat.

TT&C: Can you talk about the advantages of city growth? Are there downsides to consider?
AJ: There is definitely an advantage to growth. For example, our city’s growth a few years ago was so consistently at 4 to 5 percent and more, that the Cleveland City Council voted to give our schools a percentage of our budget increase annually, one that’s equal to the population growth percentage. It was one of the best things we did. And, yes there’s a downside to growth. If you fail to anticipate growth, you start seeing over-crowded conditions everywhere — street traffic backup, unsafe pedestrian conditions, sidewalk shortages, etc.

TT&C: Can you share some achievements you are proudest of?
AJ: The Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products (Whirlpool Corporation), which was the largest employer in Cleveland, was considering closing down the Cleveland plant and moving everything to the Mississippi division, which would have put more than 1,800 local employees out of their jobs. Thanks to Mayor Tom Rowland, County Mayor Gary Davis, the Cleveland City Council, and the Bradley County Commission, we made a proposal to help with infrastructure and setup costs for the new facility by donating $1 million from the city and $1 million from the county. The state also contributed several millions of dollars. We saved nearly 2,000 jobs.
Here’s another example of a proud accomplishment: the new Cleveland High School athletic arena. It is really beautiful and first class. The old gym had been condemned due to a deterioration of several weight-bearing support beams, causing severe cracks in the walls and foundation. The building was totally unsafe. We had enough funds left to begin construction of a new arena. The vote for the project was tied 3 to 3. I was the last to vote, and I voted yes.

TT&C: Do you have a philosophy of leadership? How do you deal with conflict or difficult issues?
AJ: My philosophy of leadership is always do what is right, be fair and respectful to everyone. When there is a conflict, always strive for a win-win solution when possible.

TT&C: What is it like since longtime Mayor Tom Rowland retired as Cleveland’s mayor? He had been in office since 1991. What is working with the new mayor like?
AJ: Mayor Rowland is truly an icon. He set a standard all of us are trying to measure up to. He is such an excellent communicator and facilitator. The new Mayor Kevin Brooks is a chip off the old block. He is off to a very good start. [Brooks, a Republican who did not seek re-election to the Tennessee House District 24 seat, won the mayoral election in August 2018.]
I worked with Mayor Rowland during all the years that I have been on Cleveland City Council. So, that’s been 25 years. Mayor Rowland had a lot of experience. He’s very knowledgeable, and he has great communication skills — probably more than any leader I’ve worked with. Of course, there were times when we had disagreements, but I learned a lot from him.
The transition is going great. Mayor Brooks has already come out of a governmental environment. He has a lot of leadership and facilitating experience. Our mayor in Cleveland doesn’t have a vote, but he has a voice and a veto power. Mayor Brooks comes already equipped to handle all those issues. We have a lot of things coming up, especially in the next three to five years. We have a great visionary plan put together. I think Kevin is doing to a great job.

TT&C: What is the visionary plan?
AJ: The visionary plan is a plan for downtown revitalization and turning our community into a walkability community. We also have several intersections that are overcrowded and issues with traffic. We want to go in and rebuild those areas and make them safer for pedestrians and traffic. We have a great plan in place for the next four to five years. Our growth in Cleveland has been so good that we have fallen a little behind in infrastructure improvements. Now we have a plan in place that will help get us caught up.

TT&C: Why do you think Cleveland has been a such a success story in recent years?
AJ: There are so many people here who have invested in and given back a lot to the community. They are very interested in good government and good leadership. There are many people in Cleveland with a lot of experience, and they have a certain standard that they hold for the city. And the community really supports the people who want to be in leadership roles and who want to help keep the community going. That’s the reason why we have such a unique city. At one time we had 14 Fortune 500 companies here, and now we have 12 or 13. The leadership of all those companies always come together, and make sure they stay in touch with the leadership of our community — the mayor, city and county commissioners. We all come together in Cleveland even though we have our disagreements from time to time. When it comes to really important issues like jobs, housing, redevelopment and infrastructure improvement we set our differences aside and always come together. We sit down and talk about what is best for Cleveland. I think that’s part of why we’ve been so successful.

TT&C: What are some of the biggest challenges in your community right now?
AJ: Here’s my perspective: even though we are known as political figures you don’t want to get too political and let politics override your common sense. You always want to do what’s right and what’s best for the community. In the political environment there are sometimes hidden agendas and ulterior motives. Some people don’t know the whole story, and they only see one side of it. But when they come to us we have all kinds of information about what we’re getting involved in — in the community and in the state.
So, it’s hard sometimes to tell people no. Especially when it’s someone you really like and have a lot of respect for. But sometimes we have to vote or go against what they want because they don’t have all the information that you have. You have to do the right thing. Especially on a local level it’s important to be as bipartisan on issue as you can. These are very challenging times.

TT&C: You have been active with Tennessee Municipal League for years. Why do you think TML’s work is important?
AJ: I have grown and learned so much through TML conferences and workshops. The facilitators have been the best of the best — very informative. Through TML the municipalities across the state have a united voice to our state legislators. Together we have made a difference. I am very honored to have served as district director for District 3 at least two times, and I’m enjoying the privilege of currently serving as one of the at-large directors.

TT&C: Can you think of an experience in your life that has really humbled you or taught you a major life lesson?
AJ: I ran for the office of city councilman six times and won six times. I learned that people will vote for and follow anyone, as long as you help them meet their needs. It does not matter whether you are tall or short, fat or skinny, black, white, or green. As long as you help people meet their needs, they will follow and support you. Your word is very important. I go by this: DWYSYWD — do what you say you will do!