Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct the spellings of George Dotson’s and Marion Caselberry’s names.
This past winter, Melvin “Rommie” Taylor had an idea: He wanted to organize a large, public birthday celebration in honor of Sam Johnson’s 90th birthday.
Johnson was turning 90 on Sept. 13. Johnson had been a barber for more than 70 years, and more than 50 of those years he was cutting and styling hair at the Church Street Barber Shop, 1905 Church St.
Johnson was also a concerned citizen, who was honored by the city in 2016 for his work as a community activist, a mentor to young people and as a successful businessperson. Church Street Barber Shop is located on the honorary Samuel Johnson Way, the section of Church between Dodge and Brown avenues.
Johnson has always been known for his generosity within the Evanston community. Reportedly no organization that ever asked for his help walked away empty-handed.
His shop is located across the street from ETHS and next door to Y.O.U. Although he is retired now, Johnson was known for being a good listener, making his customers feel welcome and cared for and giving good haircuts, even if they did not have the ability to pay.
Taylor, who has lived in Detroit since 1996, said he knew he would need help making the party happen. So he called Robert “Bob” Reece.
Taylor and Reece have been good friends since childhood. Taylor is a retired Xerox executive, one of the first Black salespeople ever hired by the company.
Taylor was also very active in community organizations such as The Chessmen Club of the North Shore. He was also inducted into the ETHS Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013 for accomplishments in football and basketball.
Reece is an insurance executive and the first African American board chair of the McGaw YMCA. He is a current member of The Chessmen Club and also a member of the Advisory Committee of the Evanston RoundTable.
Reece loved the idea and proposed piggybacking a birthday celebration with the Mason Park Players, a group of guys who regularly play basketball in Mason Park and also have been holding a community barbeque the Saturday of Labor Day weekend for the past several years.
All of the players know Johnson; he was a beloved fixture in the community. Reece was sure they’d sign on, which they did.
So after they had a date (Sept. 3–10 days before Johnson’s actual birthday), a reason to celebrate and an event partner to help draw a crowd, Taylor called Johnson and his wife, Liz, who offered feedback about music, food and people to invite.
Taylor and Reece recruited three other lifelong friends, Dudley Brown, Kenny Wideman and George Dotson, to help with organizing. As more heard about the event, a few from out of state made plans to attend, flying in from as far away as Florida and New York.
Johnson requested his friend, Marion Caselberry, sing a favorite gospel song at the start of the celebration. She was deeply honored to be asked and was happy to oblige, according to Taylor.
Brown, Wideman, Dotson and Reece took care of ordering the sheet cake large enough to feed the anticipated crowd, the signage and banners, a bouquet of birthday balloons, two extra-large birthday cards for attendees to sign, and a mug and hat that called out Johnson’s 90th birthday.
On the day of the celebration, the weather was perfect for an outdoor party: no rain, not too much sun and very little humidity. Johnson arrived shortly after 2 p.m. and the party got started in earnest.
Reece spoke briefly to herald Johnson’s role in the community and his generosity. Just as he had requested, Johnson was serenaded with a stirring gospel song belted out by Caselberry, To God Be the Glory.
A line of people gathered to have a minute or two with Johnson, to give him a hug or bump elbows with him, hand him a card or just say ‘happy birthday.’ Everyone who said to him, “I’m so glad to see you!” was told, “Glad to be seen!” by Johnson.
Just as the crowd dwindled, someone cut the sheet cake and sang a well-intended rendition of Happy Birthday.
Alyce Johnson, one of the attendees and no relation to the celebrant, said, “When I was younger, I used to get my haircut all the time from Sam. He also cut my son’s hair, Kevin Johnson, and my grandson’s hair, Jeremy Johnson.
“When you go up to that shop, you feel special. They make everybody that comes up there feel special. They treat the ladies with great respect and make them feel great, even beautiful.”
After most of the cake had been eaten, the RoundTable asked Johnson a few questions.
- Which person inspires you the most? “My kids,” he said.
- Who do you admire? “God.”
- What is your favorite book? “The Bible.”
- What is your favorite meal? “Breakfast. Bacon, eggs and grits.”
- Do you have a favorite movie? “The Sting.”
- What is your greatest strength? “My mind.”
- And your greatest weakness? “My mind.”
When asked if he had anything to say to the friends and family gathered, Johnson replied, “Thank you. Thank God. God is good. Get to church tomorrow!”