Former neighbor Al Johnson, first black GM dealer, dies at 89
Former resident Albert (Al) W. Johnson died of lung cancer at his home in Chicago Jan. 13 at the age of 89. During his years in Rancho Murieta, Mr. Johnson divided his time between Chicago and the home in the Fairways he shared with his son Tony. In Chicago, Mr. Johnson was a groundbreaking African-American businessman and a political mover-and-shaker who helped Barack Obama win office. In Rancho Murieta, he was a dapper gentleman who socialized with his many friends, played low-stakes poker and was regarded as the life of the party.
“He was quite a man. ... He was somebody you’d like to know. ... He had an amazing life,” said Rick Luttrell, who met Mr. Johnson in 1996 at a golf outing. Luttrell, who now lives in Gold River, was a Murietan at the time.
When he heard Mr. Johnson was looking for a home in the area, Luttrell brought him out to Rancho Murieta for a round of golf and showed him around. “He bought instantly,” Luttrell recalled. In addition to the house on De La Cruz Drive, Mr. Johnson bought two adjoining lots, turning them into a parklike-setting for the parties and barbecues that took place during the six months of the year he was in residence.
“He liked to entertain and just be a good neighbor,” Luttrell said. “He made a lot of friends. He was kind of like a Pied Piper for making friends. He was just a real gentleman.”
Murietan Natachia Taylor described Mr. Johnson as a “very dapper” gentleman with old-school manners and boundless energy who was seen around the community in a sporty red Corvette. In addition to being the life of the party, Mr. Johnson had “a lot of foundations that he worked on, a lot of charities,” she said. “Everyone knew him. ... He was dearly loved, and he’s going to be missed by a lot of people.”
Mr. Johnson would typically arrive at his Rancho Murieta home a few days before Christmas and depart in May. He had a tradition of spending Christmas Eve with a couple who were close friends, and he dressed as Santa to delight the children, Taylor said.
Taylor, a Realtor, said she sold Mr. Johnson’s house in 2007 when he and his son moved to Folsom. Although the move resolved commuting issues for his son, Luttell believes Mr. Johnson suspected the crash was coming. “He was pretty good at reading market trends,” Luttell said.
Despite the move, Mr. Johnson kept up his associations in Rancho Murieta, including weekly poker games.
“He loved low-stakes poker. Even though he was quite wealthy, he just never played for high stakes. I mean, if he lost 30 bucks, it’d pinch his drawers,” Luttrell recalled with a chuckle.
Mr. Johnson was born in St. Louis. His father, a doctor, wanted him to make medicine his profession. Instead, Mr. Johnson went to work in St. Louis as a hospital administrator, and earned a master's degree in hospital administration from the University of Chicago.
He began selling cars on a part-time basis door-to-door, since racial discrimination kept him from selling in the dealer’s showroom. Nevertheless, he became the dealership’s top salesman.
In the early 1950s, he wrote to General Motors requesting an Oldsmobile dealer franchise. After repeatedly petitioning the company, he finally received a franchise in Chicago in 1967, as the push for civil rights gained national momentum. He is said to have been GM's first black franchisee. His success in turning around the faltering dealership prompted GM to give him a Cadillac dealership four years later.
Along with his business success, Mr. Johnson became an active player in civic and philanthropic efforts. He was a leader in the Political Action Conference of Illinois, the group that led the effort to find a black candidate to run for mayor of Chicago. Mr. Johnson was also a major contributor to the campaign.
After Harold Washington was elected the city’s first black mayor in 1983, Mr. Johnson served as a business development consultant to the city for a fee of $1 a year.
Mr. Johnson contributed $50,000 to Barack Obama’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, becoming the first large donor.
The list of honors Mr. Johnson accumulated in his lifetime is long. It includes honorary degrees, business awards and media recognition. He was chairman emeritus of the University of Illinois Center for Urban Business, College for Business Administration; a board member of LaRabida Children’s Hospital, a member of the Executives Club of Chicago, and the General Motors Black Dealers Advisory Board.
He is survived by his third wife, Marion E. Johnson, sons Tony (Antwoine) of Folsom, Al Jr. of Palos Hills, IL, and Donald of Chicago, a sister, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Services were held last week in Chicago, and Mr. Johnson’s friends in Rancho Murieta are making plans to hold a memorial at the Country Club Feb. 23, which would have been his 90th birthday.