by Robb Fulcher
When Philip L. Johnson relaxes in his house on the hill in Rancho Palos Verdes, he can recall getting where he is through hard work, faith, and perseverance in the face of wartime danger abroad and extreme adversity at home.
The son of a Wisconsin foundry worker, Johnson became a noted aviation attorney and judge pro tem for the California State Bar who spends superhuman hours volunteering his energies to a variety of causes.
But the road from Beloit, Wisc. was not an easy one.
Before that it wound through Princeton University, where Johnson was one of four black undergraduates (one of whom was passing for white), and the deep south where Johnson, a Marine Corps officer, was chased from a segregated restaurant, and sent home from a rented beach house by police. It led him through Vietnam, where he led deadly flying missions and bucked the odds to survive.
Johnson, an affable, highly accomplished man with an easy laugh and a touch of gray at his temples, managed to walk that difficult road without picking up resentment and bitterness as traveling companions. Sitting in the book-lined study of the spacious, showcase home he shares with his wife, two daughters and a cat, the 60-year-old lawyer is the picture of dignified industry and good will.
"That is perhaps my greatest accomplishment, that I haven't become bitter," he said.
Johnson's story begins in Beloit, 100 miles northwest of Chicago at the Wisconson/Illinois state line, where he began to absorb the values of hard work and selfless service embodied by his father, Philip J. Johnson.
The elder Johnson was active in church and the NAACP when he wasn't working as a welder and millwright. When he retired he became a county supervisor, and to this day he delivers Salvation Army "meals on wheels" to the less fortunate elderly.
"I always saw him doing those things, even when I was in grade school," his son said. "You just follow what you see when you're younger. He was my role model."
The elder Johnson turned 85 in April, and Johnson's mother Christabel turned 82 in November.
Their son wound up pursuing law, but his first career goal would have landed him not behind the bench but behind bars.
"In high school I thought I was going to be a prison warden," Johnson said. "There had been a riot in Jackson State Prison in Michigan, and for my debate and forensics project I gave an original oration called "A World Apart."
The oration carried him to the state finals in debate. What's more, his contention that more education for prisoners would lower recidivism rates wound up foreshadowing today's headlines. Recent stories of the success of prisoner education have been carried in a number of newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, which ran a front-page series.
"That was my solution, going all the way back to high school," Johnson said with a chuckle.
After high school Johnson was accepted into Princeton on a naval ROTC scholarship.
"I was probably one of the first half dozen blacks to go to Princeton," he said.
It was one of his freshman classmates who was using his fair skin to pass for white.
"We didn't talk very much," Johnson said.
A lot of the white students at the Ivy League school wouldn't talk to Johnson. But George Brakeley III, a white student who would become a lifelong friend, needed a roommate and asked Johnson to move in.
"He got a lot of static for that," Johnson said.
However, he had nothing but praise for his professors.
"Princeton was an excellent school," he said. "The faculty figured if I was there I obviously was capable of doing the work."
Johnson was graduated in the Class of '61, and began his ROTC-required military stint in the Marine Corps. He learned how to fly airplanes and helicopters, and then the Corps sent him to Vietnam.
A member of the "Pineapple Squadron" from Kaneohi Bay, Hawaii, Johnson piloted a helicopter that carried the first Marines down into Da Nang.
"In my two years flying aircraft I was never hit, but I left a lot of friends over there who were shot down," Johnson said.
One day in the late fall of 1965, Johnson piloted one of about 30 helicopters taking Marines into Hiep Duc, south of Da Nang. The pilots had to swoop down into a valley as 50-caliber machine guns pounded away at them from all sides. So surrounded were they that some of the gunners were shooting down on the helicopters from the mountainsides that hemmed them in.
As the day dragged on the pilots made trip after trip through a showering crossfire down into the jungle. The choppers hovered to land one or two at a time in a narrow strip.
"All in all that day, we lost about two thirds of the aircraft," Johnson said. On one of the approaches a nearby pilot made a sudden evasive turn and flew into the fire that would otherwise have hit Johnson's craft.
"I'm not afraid of anything anymore," he said. "We were going down into that area where we knew we were going to get shot at, and we were doing it again and again and again. It kind of steels you, let's put it that way."
By the time his two tours of duty were over, Johnson's first wife had told him he had "used up all his luck."
Luck isn't the word Johnson used.
"I was golden," he said with a laugh. "I told my mother later I was golden."
During his stint in the Marine Corps Lt. Johnson, one of 21 black officers in the 187,000-member Corps, at times ran into prejudice. He was ordered out of an officers club by a white major, and went to his captain to ask if that was right.
"He got [mad]," Johnson said. "He talked to the other guy and he told me the next day that would never happen again."
In 1962 to 1964, as the black civil rights movement raged in America, Johnson was stationed at Pensacola, in the western Florida panhandle.
"There were a lot of places I couldn't go," he said.
He took a date to a movie theater off the base, and found to his shock that the black patrons were not allowed to buy their tickets at the box office.
"We had to go around to the back door, and then go up the stairs to 'nigger heaven,' the balcony," Johnson said. "I never went back."
Another time he and a white Marine stopped for a meal in southern Alabama and were told that Johnson would not be served.
"My friend, Merle, he got hot," Johnson said. "It started escalating and we ended up getting chased out of there. They got in their cars and chased us. They finally gave up. I don't know why, but they did."
Another time Johnson and three white Marine buddies rented a Pensacola beach house for the weekend.
"My friends were all there and I joined them later," Johnson said. "The next thing I knew the police were walking up, and they told my friends I wasn't supposed to be there. I kept asking why and finally they said 'The neighbors want you out. You are going out or we are taking you out.'"
Sitting in his study some 35 years later, Johnson was asked why those experiences were not embittering. As if from nowhere tears sprang to his eyes. He rose to his feet and walked around, bringing his feelings to harness.
He paced across the study and back, stopping finally to stand at a pair of French doors, his back to the room, looking out upon the late morning sunshine as it slanted down across his youngest daughter's play equipment.
He talked gratefully about his relief from bitterness and his abiding affection for his fellow human beings.
"A lot of people my age, older black men, don't associate with whites, because they don't want to keep running into that kind of treatment. You get tired of beating your head against a wall, right?" he said.
"When I was in school my friends would ask me why I wasn't out on the streets demonstrating. I told them only so many people can work and make changes from the inside. And that is basically what I've done."
Out of the service in 1969, Johnson sought a job as an airline pilot at a time when few such positions were available.
"United was the only one hiring," he said. "I went for one interview and I was going in for a second one when they started laying people off. I thought, I'm going to law school."
He went to USC, graduating in 1973.
He became a partner in the Long Beach offices of Lillick & Charles, a product liability defense firm specializing in aviation law. He went on to serve on the prestigious bench of the state Bar Court, and currently chairs the Aerospace Law Committee of the Defense Research Institute.
The short list of his civic involvement positions includes past president of USC's Legion Lex, past chairman of Princeton's Committee to Nominate Alumni Trustees, former Southern California chairman of Princeton's Annual Giving Campaign and member of the Alumni Council.
Johnson currently serves as chairman of the Military Committee for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation's Los Angeles Ball, which last year raised $1.2 million for scholarships for sons and daughters of Marines.
Along the way he was divorced from his first wife, and then in 1979 married the former Kathleen Rose Westover. For Johnson it was love at first sight. For his future bride, well, it took a little longer.
At their first meeting, over lunch, she told him that she hated power pilots and lawyers. But love overcame prejudice once again, so to speak. And it overcame race as well, as Kathleen is white.
"We had all those other things to address, so race never became an issue," Johnson said with yet another laugh.
The couple had two children, Celeste Marie and Nicole Michelle.
Taking leave of the Johnson house for the trip back down the hill, one last question occurs: Has Johnson faced prejudice in RPV?
The answer is no.
"This place is different. I don't find people thinking they have to compete with each other. They think if you made it here, there is something about you, that you get to live up here. They figure you made it," he said.
"They probably think -- how can I put this - they probably figure you're different," he added. Then he laughed. PEN
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