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Solid foundation: Longtime masonry instructor inducted into Hall of Fame

Eugene Johnson is a man of few words, but his masonry work, along with more than 30 years of instruction to a younger generation, has spoken volumes and landed him in the 2021 Masonry Hall of Fame.

The Masonry Hall of Fame was created by the Mason Contractors Association of America to recognize and award individuals who have dedicated their lives to the masonry industry.

Johnson, a Holly Hill resident, was among the honorees who were inducted into the Masonry Hall of Fame during a ceremony in September in Memphis, Tennessee.

The 69-year-old worked for 10 years in the commercial mason industry before accepting a job teaching masonry at Holly-Hill Roberts High School in 1980. His teaching career spanned 37 years up until his retirement from Lake Marion High School in 2018.

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He said his award and induction were appreciated, but not expected – and certainly not something he was working for nearly 40 years for.

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“I wasn’t working for that. That came as a surprise to me, but I guess somebody saw the pride and joy that I had in it. I just really don’t know what to say about it. It was definitely an honor to be mentioned. You’ve got thousands and thousands of bricklayers out there, and they all kind of qualify for the same thing. So it’s definitely an honor to be recognized,” Johnson said.

His love for masonry work began early as a sophomore at then-Roberts High School in Holly Hill.

“In my sophomore year there, they brought a guy in from New York who wanted to teach masonry. When I got into it and got in the class and started fooling around, creating and building things, I realized it’s a mind game,” Johnson said.

“If you can think it in your mind, you can do it. So I got interested in that. I graduated from Roberts High in ’69. Then I went on to Denmark Tech for a year and a half and got my associate’s in masonry in Denmark Tech. Then I did 10 years in the industry doing commercial work before going to the school in 1980,” he said.

“I had to do further studies when I got into the school system. I had to go on to South Carolina State, Midlands Tech and those kind of places,” said Johnson, noting that he completed his bachelor’s degree in construction from then-S.C. State College.

He didn’t think he had the patience to teach the art and craft of building and fabricating in stone, clay, brick or concrete block to students, but his thought process soon changed.

“I didn’t think I had the patience because I saw the joy and the pride that you had to take to be a bricklayer. I learned that in 10 years. I didn’t think I had the patience to do that until I was asked.

“I was asked three times to take the job as an instructor in Holly Hill at Holly Hill-Roberts. So when I decided to take it and when I started instructing and showing other kids the value of it and what you can get out of it, the pride and the joy, it just all kicked it in. As every year went by, looked like it got better and better. It was just a joy to do,” Johnson said.

He said he takes pride in his many students who went on to their own success in and enjoyment from masonry work.

“I got quite a few of them out there now. They’re doing things on their own. I’m hoping they can pass it on to the next generation,” Johnson said.

To him, brickwork doesn’t change outside of a newer and fancier tool you may be able to use.

“You get more modern equipment, maybe a tool or so, but brickwork itself don’t change. I was always taught that. You can work here in Holly Hill, you can go to California, you can go to New York, Chicago, and they do the same thing. Once you learn the trade, you got it. You’re qualified to go to any state you want, and you can go to work,” Johnson said.

The value of masonry is the pride you take in knowing you built or help build something, he said.

“Like they always say, when you build with brick, block or anything concrete, you won’t ever have to do it again. That stays forever. To be a mason, you got to love what you do to start with. You don’t mind working hard because it’s hard work every day. You got to love what you do, and you got to take pride in what you do,” Johnson said.

He was the only instructor in the MCAA’s Hall of Fame induction class this year, with the rest of the honorees serving as contractors.

He reflected on some of his students’ competition wins and the tremendous support he received from Dr. David Longshore, who had then been serving as superintendent of Orangeburg Consolidated School District 3, which included Lake Marion High School.

“I want to give Dr. Longshore a special thanks because he supported me. That’s one of the reasons I guess I got this award. Dr. Longshore was the type of superintendent that if you wanted to strive or do better, he let you do that.

“When they came out with the National Masonry Instructors Association, I became a member of that. He encourages you to join your organizations and participate in them. When I needed to go to meetings and this kind of stuff, he never turned it down,” Johnson said.

Until his retirement in 2018, Johnson had provided instruction and evaluation to nearly 1,800 students. He has instructed 15 first-place and 10 second-place competition winners on the district level and one first-place winner on the state level in 1999.

“I had some pretty good students over the time. They poured their heart out for me. Out of my 37 years of teaching, I had one particular student who didn’t win that state competition win for me, but he came in second place and knew the reason why.

“He just made one simple mistake. ... His name was Herman Davis, and he was a terrific student. I had him for three years, and by his third year, if I didn’t know a lot of shortcuts, he would have beat me laying bricks,” Johnson said.

He continued, “Then I had the first female to ever lay bricks around here. Her name was Nicole Jenkins, and she laid bricks for 20 years. She came in to class, and I used to try to cater to her. She’d say, ‘No.’”

“She was always better than the boys to start with, and she would say, ‘No. I don’t want them to say you helped me.’ She would do all her stuff herself. Then she would still beat them. She had a 20-year career in it, and then carpel tunnel started messing with her in her hand and she gave it up.”

Johnson’s affiliations include: National Center for Construction Education and Research instructor; SkillsUSA instructor; National Skills Masonry Competition judge; as well as a judge for the MCAA’s Masonry Skills Challenge. Johnson, who previously served as president of the National Masonry Instructors Association, now serves as secretary.

After 37 years of teaching, his words of advice to students is simple.

“I would advise them that if they’re going to college, to still have a trade. Be able to do something for yourself. I don’t care whether it’s masonry, plumbing or electrical. Be able to look back at things and say, ‘Well, I did this or that.’ Love what you do and take pride in it,” he said.

That is what he enjoys most about masonry.

“I like going around to different places with different buildings that I’ve worked on. When I ride by, I can say, “I helped do that. I worked on that.’ That’s the joy I get out of it,” Johnson said.

He and his wife, Gloria, have two children, Bridgette and Anthony, and five grandchildren. He said his family’s support over the years has been outstanding.

“It’s outstanding. They shock me with everything. I told them about how I was going to get this award, and I wasn’t expecting them until the day before they showed up. All of them showed up. So they support me well on anything that I do. Words can’t explain it,” Johnson said.

“It means so much to me that I just don’t have words for it. I wasn’t expecting none of that. I was on the phone telling them not to come because of COVID and this kind of stuff. They said, ‘We’ll figure it out,’ but all the time they were making plans to be there,” he said.

Johnson said he loves to travel, fish and spend time with his grandchildren, and even still takes on a few small masonry jobs.

“I still love to do little odd jobs. I don’t want to brick a whole house anymore, but just small jobs. I don’t mind doing a small brick job here and there every once in a while,” he said.

Johnson is the son of the late Emanuel B. Johnson and his “tough as nails” 94-year-old mother, Floria, who still lives in Holly Hill and tends to her beloved flower bed daily.

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“In about four months, she’ll be 95 if nothing happens. She lives by herself. From a young man, you had to work. She instilled that in you. You must work, you must be self-supportive. If no one else is around, then you know how to take care of yourself,” he said.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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