A Look Back At Ocean County's "Poorest Millionaire"
Veteran Newsman Don Bennett Shares His Memories Of The Colorful Jimmy Johnson
Wouldn't it be great if the redeveloped Beachwood Plaza Shopping Center did become the focus of a new town center for Berkeley Township? Will 2011 be the year that dream finally clears the bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles? We'll see.
For me, nothing can replace the shopping center as I knew it, working for one of the most colorful men ever to adopt Ocean County as his home, the late James E. "Jimmy'' Johnson, who owned the place – sometimes.
I say that cautiously, because no one could be sure, from day to day, which limited partnership or other family entity actually owned which part of the Johnson empire. Only one man knew for sure: Johnson.
This much was certain – Johnson left the U.S. Navy at Lakehurst with little more than his hands in his pockets. I suspect the accountants grew old and tired trying to figure out the value of his estate after he died in 1999.
He sold lumber, a little at first, then lots of it, salvaging some early on from a rail car load that caught fire, shortly after he launched the Johnson Lumber Company. Johnson got to know Frank Sutton, the then-president of the First National Bank of Toms River, who loaned him money for that and other businesses. He bought land, in Ocean County, Mississippi, and Florida, got into the paving and building businesses, built the Beachwood Plaza Shopping Center, and an air strip out back for the plane he kept in the basement of the shopping center.
A Mississippi native, he flew to Alabama to take courses at the University of Alabama, business courses. World War II interrupted his studies there when he joined the Navy. He'd go on about a business and the professors would tell him "you can't do that.'' "I'm doing it,'' he replied.
He got elected to the Toms River Board of Education. My father, the superintendent of schools, insisted Johnson was able to understand the school budget better and quicker than any member to serve on the board. That's where I got to know him. He called my dad "Mr. Bennett.'' Although I was decades his junior when I went to work for him, Johnson called me "Mr. Bennett'' too.
Johnson was about to buy a newspaper, the county's oldest, and needed newspapermen to run it. Dan Clay, the late great Ocean County journalist from Bayville, and I stepped forward.
It was a wild ride. For openers, the New Jersey Courier, the venerable Toms River weekly with roots dating back to the start of the county in 1850, was to be sold by the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid taxes.
Johnson showed up to bid in bib overalls, announcing his offers loudly in a Southern drawl. His speech always seemed turbocharged.
The hammer fell and Johnson was the high bidder.
"Do you have the money?'' the auctioneer asked, with thinly concealed contempt.
"Will you take cash?'' Johnson replied, pulling a wad of bills out of his overalls that more than satisfied the hungry taxman.
Back at the Courier offices at 300 West Water Street in Toms River, the IRS had padlocked everything. Ominous warnings of impending doom threatened anyone who dared break the government seals. Johnson used bolt cutters on the locks and gained access to the building.
Soon the newspaper relocated to the Beachwood Plaza Shopping Center. Johnson called it that because of his numerous disagreements with the officials in Berkeley Township. Many of those disagreements centered on Johnson's ownership and operation of the Berkeley Water Company, which served Bayville and environs.
The shopping center was a busy place, with a supermarket, 5-and-10-cent store, hardware store, bowling alley, liquor store, as the main attractions.
Johnson would add more. A pilot of lighter-than-airships at Lakehurst, he bought the gondolas from two of them from the Navy and trucked them to the shopping center and put it on display. Along the way, Johnson stood atop the metal frameworks at Main and Water Streets in Toms River, lifting the electric wires so they could pass underneath. Later there would be a train he bought in Virginia, also put on display at the shopping center.
The newspaper got a corner of what passed for the business offices of the Johnson empire. The water company was headquartered there. Brother Robert Eugene Johnson would stop in to discuss the Ocean Asphalt end of things. To Dan Clay and I fell the task of getting out a newspaper. Before long we were also trying to keep Johnson out of the shopping center office because he was spending a small fortune having a new printing press installed. Johnson not only wanted to know how everything worked, he wanted to do the work himself. Tinkering with a huge offset printing press could spell disaster, even if the tinkerer owned it. Johnson's rough edges and ruthless business dealings made him as many enemies as it did friends. Press erectors are not people you want as enemies.
There were other distractions. For one thing, Johnson decided in 1969 to run for governor. Not just any independent run for governor. He hitched his wagon to the George Corley Wallace ticket, the American Independent Party, led by the ardent Alabama chief executive who vowed "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.''
Nothing about the message appealed to Clay or I. Maybe he won't even get the party's nomination, I thought.
"Mr. Bennett, I need you to drive me to Atlantic City,'' Johnson invited. Soon I was behind the wheel of a Bentley Johnson borrowed from New York City banker Henry Mellon, and we were going to Atlantic City. The Hotel Dennis, to be precise, to the New Jersey convention of the American Independent Party. I knew Johnson, and Johnson knew me. Other than that, we didn't know anybody.
We sat down for breakfast, or tried to. Word had spread through the delegates that a guy with a lot of money from Toms River wanted to run for governor. Maybe he would bankroll the whole campaign. Breakfast became a receiving line with delegates lined up to meet Johnson.
Far be it from him to tell them that the frugality he advocated for government extended to political campaigns. If they thought he was going to spend a fortune, let them keep on thinking it, he confided. Votes counted, Johnson was the party's nominee for governor.
To the Wallace message that "there's not a dimes worth of difference'' between the Republicans and the Democrats, Johnson added "a lawyer in politics has a license to steal.'' When it became clear he intended to spend next to nothing on the campaign, the party brass tried but failed to strip him of the nomination. I think the only money he spent was for bumper stickers, which he had printed by the Courier.
Clay and I were privately revolted by the Wallace message and amazed that Johnson never tried to use his newspaper to promote his candidacy. He lost the general election, finishing third, but claimed he won because the major party candidates, Republican William T. Cahill and Democrat Robert Meyner, exceeded the spending limits for gubernatorial campaigns. An obliging Legislature repealed the limits before Johnson could successfully argue that he was the legally elected governor.
Back at the shopping center, Johnson was a self-help landlord. If the rent was late, he'd have a front-end loader positioned in front of the door of the offending tenant. It moved only when the rent was paid. I'm not sure if it was the same front-end loader he used to chase trespassers off the beach at Cattus Island on Silver Bay, property he later sold to the county for Cattus Island Park. It looked like it, but he had more than one.
He became the largest stockholder in the First National Bank of Toms River and took part in a bid to take it over that failed. He sold his stock at a premium, not too long before the bank failed and its stock became worthless.
Toying with the IRS is seldom a good idea, a lesson Johnson, usually a quick study, was slow to learn. He rented a friend and associate a restaurant on Route 9 in Berkeley called Grady's Char Pit. The building and the equipment, Johnson claimed, belonged to him. The owed the IRS money.
IRS agents descended on the place. Johnson stood in the restaurant door, refusing to let the agents take equipment he claimed was his to satisfy a lien against his tenant.
"Don, Jimmy wants you down at Grady's right away,'' came the breathless call from Richard Woods, my former high school classmate and Johnson's lawyer.
Camera in hand, I was arrived just in time to find the IRS leading Johnson from the restaurant and handcuffing him to the door handle on Mellon's Bentley. They claimed he assaulted an agent by biting him. I snapped away with the Rolleicord camera, and certain metal bracelets would soon link me to the Bentley as well. I escaped, Johnson didn't.
Somehow, Johnson insisted it was for "observation,'' but he wound up in the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. for three months. There he met Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamster's Union president, who was an inmate. Hoffa dubbed Johnson "The Fox,'' allowed him to sit on his bench in the lockup, and issued a protective order for him. A federal jury in Camden eventually acquitted Johnson of assaulting the IRS agents, but convicted him of interfering with them.
The shopping center continued to decline and Johnson lost interest in the newspaper, selling it to Joseph Milza, who already owned the Daily Observer and the Ocean County Sun.
Through the years Johnson played me like a fiddle. When the First National Bank of Toms River failed, it was taken over by the First Fidelity bank. Johnson disliked the management and made sure I got a call about his decision to take his money out of the bank. He opened up a briefcase full of cash on the hood of his car so the event could not only be reported, but also photographed.
Johnson would tip me off when he launched a suit or filed an answer to one filed by the state Department of Environmental Protection over the asphalt plant or recycling center operated behind the shopping center. The suits were endless.
In May of 1995 he called to vent about the arrest of a Jackson man who was getting a hard time from an employee at the Ocean County Surrogate's Office and threatened to make the office "another Oklahoma City.'' The memory of that bombing was still fresh in everyone's mind.
The guy who made the threat was in the county jail, with bail set at $15,000. Johnson invited me to go to the bank with him, where he withdrew $15,000. Then he went to the bail office in the Justice Complex and slid the cash under the glass partition, securing the man's freedom.
I knew where the man would be emerging from the jail, and took Johnson to meet him. The bewildered man walked up the steep incline from the lockup and shook the hand of the stranger who bailed him out. The charge against him was dropped a short time later, and Johnson got his money back.
It was, of course, the opportunity for Johnson to again threaten to sue me. I had a habit of describing him as a millionaire. Each time I did, he would call reminding me that his wife gave him a meager allowance and that he owned nothing. His family did, his wife, children, and grandchildren, but not him. Finally, I gave in. I described him as the county's "poorest millionaire.'' He complained and shook his legal saber anew.
In the end, it was the passion for work that claimed Johnson. He worked everyday, 18 hours a day most days, and no job was too menial for him. Asbestos gave him cancer in both lungs. His brother blamed the asbestos water pipes used by the Berkeley Water Company.
Like the water company, the shopping center will get a new owner. But it will never have one as unique as the man who built the place.