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A nature to nurture

“How you doing?” Martha Crocker Johnson says as a student passes her outside Graham Residence Hall on a rainy day morning in late August.

The student has been here for barely a week, and already Johnson has him pegged as one of hers. Nobody living in this building can escape her attention for long, and all of them learn soon enough they cannot pass her without giving and getting some kind of greeting.

“You back, huh,” she yells at a student.

“Yeah,” he yells, “I’m back.”

“OK,” she says.

Sitting on a bench, she points over to the exact spot between Graham and Aycock residence halls where a man came up to her and asked if she would be willing to accept a C. Knox Massey Award.

She looked at him and said, “W-h-a-a-a-a-t?”

She didn’t know for sure what a Massey was even after he told her, but she didn’t take long to accept. The award part sounded good enough to her.

“You have to keep this to yourself.” The man whispered like a CIA agent talking about some clandestine mission.

“I practically had to read his lips, that’s how low he said it,” Johnson says.

She nods again, puzzled how anything so big could have anything to do with someone so small. It did not dawn on her how big a deal winning a Massey is until weeks later. That’s when she and her mother and co-worker Cynthia Fuller stepped inside the dining hall in Morehead Planetarium for the award ceremony.

As they entered the room, her mother leaned over to her and said, “You know what, this is something big.”

Moments later they listened in near disbelief as then Interim Chancellor William O. McCoy began reading her award citation:

“…Students living away from home for the first time find themselves in a school the size of a hometown, living in a room in a building the size of a hotel, with new, bewildering circumstances, customs, requirements and expectations all about them. Worse, everywhere in this whizzing world so much life now is reduced to indirect human contact… by `Press One, Press Two, Press Three…’ ”

But students in Aycock and Graham find in Johnson “a sympathetic, friendly, comfortable person to be with.” She “daily demonstrates that reaching out in friendliness to other persons is the most generous way to transform ordinary tasks into something far greater: a secret weapon to cope with an increasingly impersonal world and preserve the best of what it means to be human…”

Her husband, a mechanic in Hillsborough, did not know what the big deal was about, either, until she came home with the check — “$5,000 minus the taxes” — and read the citation about his wife. “Well, that’s you,” is what Johnson remembers him saying.

It’s been a few months now since that night. The award money is in a savings account, and Johnson is back at work with a new batch of students to get to know.

It was still early this particular morning, just a few minutes after 7 on the Monday of the second week of classes, and the first students were just beginning to rouse out of bed for 8 a.m. classes.

Johnson yelled again at another student who had stepped outside the building, this one blowing on a cup of steaming joe.

“Coffee time, how you doing?” Johnson yelled.

“Good,” the student said as he tried his first sip. “You?”

“Just fine,” she said. “Just fine.”

Mondays are always the busiest for Johnson because they follow the weekend company that students have. Johnson opened the door to a study area on the top floor to show why: the floor is littered with pizza boxes and napkins left from a weekend party.

In due time, she will pick up the trash left on all the floors, sweep the carpets, and shine the water faucets and shower tiles. But in between tasks, she will make time for shining with students, too.
`It’s just something natural’

There may be good reason that explains why Johnson is so good at mothering. Born in Duke Hospital on Aug. 29, 1951, she grew up in Hillsborough as the big sister to seven brothers and two sisters before getting married and rearing two girls and a boy of her own. “It’s just something natural,” Johnson said of her relationship with students. “I don’t practice. I just do it just to be me.”

But 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, she never would have dreamed she would be where she is doing what she is doing.

Her father worked construction; her mother worked at Carolina preparing banquets held in Lenoir Dining Hall. She was 20 when she went to work at Cone Mills in Hillsborough six weeks after her last baby was born. She expected it would be the last job she ever had, but 12 1/2 years later, she lost it when the mill closed.

She ended up working in Lenoir Dining Hall where her mother had worked, not an employee of the University as her mother had been, but as an employee for Marriott. She would spend 7 1/2 years working for Marriott, first in Lenoir, then at a Marriott Hotel on Miami Boulevard and finally in a bone marrow transplant unit in UNC Hospitals.

She has been a housekeeper for the University for seven years now, starting in Old East and moving on to Aycock and Graham. She now works in Graham almost all the time, and her friend Carolyn Fuller works in Aycock. Once, after she was temporarily assigned to help out in a different residence hall, the students petitioned for her to stay, then held a banquet for her when the petition failed.

She has not always been as popular with her co-workers, Johnson said, at least not since she won the Massey. Shortly after she won the award, two women came into Graham with cameras to take pictures and prove that her work wasn’t up to standards. “All jokes aside, my housework is not bad, you know what I’m saying? It’s just the way some people are. They’re fault finders.”

Michael O’Brien, the director of housekeeping, said Johnson is a great person to be with and that comes through in how she approaches her job. She takes care of her building, O’Brien said, but her attitude is that she is going to care about students, too. O’Brien said nobody should find a problem with that.

Said Johnson, “If they really understood it, winning this award is a door opening up for somebody else in housekeeping.”
Martha’s mission

Nobody at home or on campus knows her as Martha Crocker Johnson. It’s on the award certificate. It’s on her birth certificate and driver’s license. But at home in Hillsborough, her family and friends call her Ann. Inside Graham, she leaves it up to students to call her what they wish. Some greet her as Miss Johnson, others as Miss Martha, or just Martha.

“It doesn’t matter what they call me,” Johnson said, “as long as we communicate.”

Johnson thinks there are all kinds of reasons why students talk to her and why some trust her enough to talk about really intimate things going on in their lives.

Sometimes, they tell her things they wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else, especially their parents.

Sometimes, they may tell her things they need to rehearse before trying to tell their parents. If they get it wrong, there are no consequences to worry about with Johnson.

Sometimes, they just need to be able to talk without the fear of facing some silent judgment or penalty.

“We have people here from Australia and Africa and everywhere. We’ve got some students who come here who don’t even have any parents, or the parents won’t have nothing to do with them. You know the kind, they say, `You want to go to college? OK, here’s the money, go, do what you want to do.’ Some of them have parents who take time with them and some that just don’t and some the parents are dead.”

Johnson does not bill herself as an expert who knows all the answers, but as a friend who tries to reassure students that they are big and strong enough to tackle whatever problems may be blocking their way.

Most of the time getting them to believe they can do something is all they need, Johnson said.

“You kind of stand back from them, listen to what they’re saying and go with the flow,” Johnson said. “I’m here to listen to whatever it may be, I’m just here. Even when it gets down to personal questions, if you just listen careful enough — sometimes they’ll word it more than one way — you can catch on to what they’re really saying.”

Their problems run the gamut.

She hears about the Felix-and-Oscar conflicts all the time that pit the slobs against the neat freaks.

“Believe it or not, we’ve got some here who wash their clothes who don’t know you’re supposed to wash the whites separate from the colors. All their clothes will be one color. You run up against them and you say, `What happened?'”

She hears about the love pangs of couples as they struggle to get together or break apart. She knows one couple that can break up in the morning and be back together by the end of the day. One or the other will tell her. “They’ll come and say it to me as a friend, and I won’t say nothing. I’ll say, `Just go on with your life right now, things will work out.'”

She hears about the pressures to perform that students put on themselves, sometimes to live up to expectations of parents back home.

“If the parents are footing the bill, they’ll say, `I can’t go home with this right here, I’ve got to have that A or B’. They’ll be crying, I mean crying so you think they’ll kill themselves. They’ll be just boohooing.”

She sees them when she comes into the study lounges in the morning. They’ll be slumped over on a couch, with books and papers scattered around them and they’ll look up at her with glassy eyes.

“They have probably been there all night long studying,” Johnson said. “If I know them, I’ll go up and ask them what’s wrong. I’ll tell them, `Just get up and take a breath, go out and get some fresh air. You’ve done studied all night, right?’ They’ll say `Yes, ma’am.’ I’ll say, `Just get up, get some air. Go get you some M&Ms or drink some coffee or do something. You’ve done read those books and those papers and read them and read them so you just need to let them go for right now.'”

Some will take a walk or a run. Others will take a shower or go for that cup of coffee. When they come back, Johnson said, they’ll be better. “When they go to take that test, I’ll tell them, `You’re going to be all right, you’re going to be all right, just keep that faith, you’re going to be all right.’ They’ll go and they’ll come back and they’ll be just so happy and they’ll say, `You know, I made it.'”

Just like Johnson had told them they would.

Growing from Graham

She and her husband still attend First Community Ministry Baptist, the same church across from Cone Mills in Hillsborough that she attended as a girl and the same church she attended with her children. Her babies are 32, 30 and 28 now. Last year, she and her husband moved out of the mobile home that she and her husband bought brand new for $7,000 and settled into their new “24 by 58 foot” doublewide.

But the size of her house is not the only thing Johnson plans to change in her life. One day, she hopes to grow out of her housekeeping job at Graham and into a job big enough to match the size of her heart.

She began taking classes at Durham Technical Community College soon after the mill closed in the early 1980s and has been taking classes, here and there, off and on, ever since.

At Cone Mills, Johnson worked production and could make anywhere from $10 to $15 an hour. Her housekeeping job pays her less than $9 an hour, not that she’s complaining. “I’m thankful. I’m thankful for being here.”

Since starting here, she has completed about half a dozen courses at night through the Durham Tech program offered at Carolina.

It makes for a long day to get to work at 7 a.m. and not get back home until 10 p.m. and it means her husband gets stuck with leftovers, but Johnson believes more than ever that it will all be worthwhile.

It’s hard to be a wife and a mamma and a grandmamma and Miss Martha to a couple hundred students and still have time left at the end of the day to be a serious student herself.

When she gets down, students will try to lift her just as she tries to lift them. When she decides to sit out a semester, they’ll tell her tha’s okay, that she needs a break.

She still has to take Accounting I and Accounting II, plus Spreadsheets and an elective to finish her associate’s degree in business administration. She is a people person after all, and figuring up numbers is not as easy as figuring out people.

Her dream is to go on and become a social worker, Johnson said.

“There’s a lot of people out there the social work people have not really touched bases with. They just do the little paperwork and ship you on out the door but there’s people who need to be talked to. There are certain things that need to be done that I haven’t heard that they do.”

In one way, it’s the same kind of job she already has, except she will not have to push around a sweeper or keep a cleaning rag in her pocket.

Winning the Massey, she said, has inspired her to push herself harder. “I’ve always wanted higher education, you know, and this award, really, it’s kind of boosted me more.”

You’re never too old to learn, she has told herself in the years since she left the mill, never too old to give up on yourself and a better life.

“You can make it,” she tells herself in the same way she tells students. And one day, she knows she will.


Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 27,2000

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