WAYNESBORO — The economic development community in Wayne County and throughout the state was shocked and saddened by the accidental death of Joseph Earl “Joe” Johnson, executive director of the Wayne County Economic Development District (WCEDD).
Johnson was at a conference in Jackson Aug. 27 when he received word that his mother’s house in Waynesboro was on fire after being hit by lightning. The house had burned to the ground by the time Johnson was able to drive back to Waynesboro. However, in a tragic accident, Johnson was struck and killed by a police vehicle when he stepped out onto Highway 84 on the way to find a shut-off valve for the water.
Herky Hardee, former Wayne County Chancery Clerk, said Johnson was very instrumental in Wayne County acquiring grants for various projects.
“He worked closely with the board of supervisors and other county officials in many industrial pursuits, such as the establishment of the new industrial park, the additions to the Sunbeam plant, the Blueberry Drop Station soon to be built near the airport and the beautification of the walk at Wayne General Hospital,” Hardee said. “He was actively involved in the study to upgrade and expand the rail system in Wayne County, in hopes of opening it all the way to the Gulf Coast. He was the founder of Wayne County Leaders of Tomorrow, a high school organization which encourages students to prepare themselves to become our future leaders.”
Hardee said he frequently traveled with Johnson to the state and U.S. capital cities in order to promote economic development in Wayne County.
Stephanie Brown, WCEDD secretary who had worked with Johnson for the past five years, described her boss as “a most patient and understanding man.
“Because of him this job was as close to perfect as it possibly could have been,” Brown said. “He was wonderful to work with. I lost a boss and a dear friend. He was just a wonderful person inside and outside of the office.”
“Joe really loved Wayne County,” said James L. Walker, chairman of the board of trustees for the WCEDD. “This is where he was born, and where he lived most of his life. Through his position as executive director of the Wayne County Economic Development District he was able to do what he loved to the benefit of all the citizens of Wayne County. His death leaves a large vacuum to fill. He will be missed by all who knew him as a friend and also as a business leader.”
Like most people who worked with him, Walker considered Johnson a personal friend as well as a business associate. So did Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County.
“He was not only a good friend, he was an ally, a positive influence on my life and an asset to the State of Mississippi,” Stennett said. “Joe’s death will leave a hole in Wayne County’s economic development program because of his knowledge, personality and integrity. Joe knew that economic development is ‘local,’ while still believing that regional development would help positively impact local economies. His breadth of vision allowed him to recognize regional assets that he could use for the benefit of Wayne County and all of South Mississippi.”
Stennett said Johnson’s strength as an economic and community developer included combining local economic development with the use of technical resources at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). Johnson was a leader in promoting the establishment and use of the Polymer Science Institute and other programs at the USM.
“Joe was also a tireless promoter of forestry and wood products as assets upon which to build our regional economy,” Stennett said. “His death has taken away a ‘family member’ from the community of professional economic developers. Joe was known throughout the state and the southeastern U.S. as a developer who was faithful to his community and to the profession. He never let anything shake him. He was always positive and upbeat.”
Angie Cognevich, regional manager for the Mississippi Development Authority office in Hattiesburg, admired her colleague’s ability to inspire and encourage others to support the local community.
“He was such a community-minded person,” Cognevich said. “He was never afraid to ask for help to make his community a better place. Pretty much any time he called me I would clear my calendar because he was so appreciative. He was first to go to bat for me if I ever needed it.
“We have suffered a huge loss. The day I got the call about his death I felt I had lost a family member. He had a huge heart. Everyone loved and respected him. He was a great community and economic developer. He is going to be truly missed.”
One project she was involved with was facilitating strategic planning for Wayne County. Cognevich said she uses Joe Johnson and Wayne County as a prime example of how strategic planning is supposed to work.
“He was always reviewing it, updating it, and bringing the right community folks in to reach their goals,” Cognevich said. “He could bring that community together like I have never seen. He was well respected. If he called on someone to do something, they would do it. That was kind of person he was. You just wanted to drop everything and help him.”
Johnson’s awards and accomplishment include:
• Inducted into the Southern Miss Alumni Hall of Fame, 1992.
• President of the international board of directors of the Southern Miss Alumni Association, 1989-1990.
• Immediate past chairman of the International Alumni Past Presidents Council, and was instrumental in the effort to bring about reform in the way College Board members are selected.
• Member of the board of directors of the MEDC from July 1995 to June 1997.
• President of the Southeast Mississippi Economic Development Network, 1997-1999.
• State chairman for March of Dimes for two years.
• Founding member of the Jones County Junior College Local Workforce Council founded in 1994.
One of his many volunteer positions was as a past member of the Mississippi Economic Development Council (MEDC) board of directors. MEDC has set up a scholarship fund to recognize Johnson’s dedication to the business and his lasting impact on the economic development community. Contribution checks can be made out to “MEDC Joe Johnson Scholarship” and mailed to MEDC, P.O. Box 3721, Jackson Miss. 39207-3721.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.