When Norman Johnson died March 10 at age 79, Smithfield lost a former fire chief, mayor, friend and dedicated public servant.
Johnson spent a lifetime working to improve the area he called home, and his family never could figure out how he found so much time and energy to give to others, said his son, Tim Johnson.
“I really think he just loved doing it,” Tim said. “He loved Smithfield and loved to see Smithfield prosper.”
Johnson graduated from Smithfield High School in 1955 and served the next two years in the U.S. Army. After his discharge, he returned home to become a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, and in 1963, he joined the Smithfield Fire Department as a volunteer. In the early 1970s, Johnson helped start Boy Scout Troop 33 at First Free Will Baptist Church, and he served on the Smithfield Town Council from 1983 to 1991.
When Smithfield decided to hire its first full-time fire chief in 1992, Johnson answered the call and hung up his mailbag after 37 years as a postman.
While the department might have been small, Johnson strove to make sure Smithfield got professional and cutting-edge fire service, said current fire chief Patrick Harris.
“He always instilled that a person’s house in Smithfield is just as important as a person’s house in downtown Raleigh or Charlotte or anywhere else,” Harris said.
As chief, Johnson started the town’s fire inspection program and created a fire marshal position. In 1994, he was named Smithfield’s director of emergencies services, which included fire, rescue and emergency medical care. Johnson helped start Johnston County’s paramedic program, and he saw that the Smithfield Rescue Squad became first in the county to offer paramedic-level care.
Johnson hired Harris and, on a personal level, served as best man at his wedding. People gravitated toward Johnson, Harris said, and many inside the fire department looked up to him as a role model.
“He was like a father to a lot of the guys around here, including myself,” Harris said.
“He was just a chief among men.”
Johnson retired as fire chief in 2003 after 40 years with the department. At that point, he returned to local politics, serving as Smithfield’s mayor pro tem from 2003 to 2005 and as mayor from 2005 to 2009.
As a political leader, Johnson continued to champion the fire department, and he held regular office hours to give the people of Smithfield a voice in their government, current Mayor Pro Tem Andy Moore said.
The man also knew how to run an efficient meeting and keep the conversations on topic, Moore said.
“Sometimes many people, on the council or wherever, like to just talk to hear themselves talk, and he was always able in a courteous way to reel them back in,” Moore said.
Since his father’s death, Tim Johnson said, several people have shared stories about his tendency to do more than was required of him. For example, Tim said he recently learned that his father would intercept letters to Santa Claus from children on his rural postal route and write them responses from the North Pole.
“This guy who was telling me about it, it meant a lot to him,” Tim Johnson said.
Among many other accolades, Johnson earned the Governor’s Award for Bravery and Heroism in 1995 for helping rescue a man from a burning car on Interstate 40 in Wake County, and in 2009, he received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. He also served as a deacon and trustee of First Christian Church of Smithfield.
After a lifetime spent serving Smithfield, Moore said he suspects Johnson has not completely left behind the town he cared so much about.
“Something tells me he's probably up in heaven looking down on Smithfield with a watchful eye, trying to make sure everyone’s safe,” he said.