Marj and Richard Johnson met when he spent two months as a patient at the Army’s Borden General Hospital in Chickasha, Okla.
Richard was assigned to the Field Artillery Battery Officers Course at Fort Sill near Lawton, Okla. He was serving as a training officer retooling the Army National Guard units for the new realities of mechanized warfare with tractor-trailer artillery. They were accustomed to horse- drawn French 75-mm howitzers and caissons.
Ironically, Richard, raised in a Chicago suburb, had come to love horses and was a graduate of Iowa State University, one of America’s foremost agricultural colleges.
The other officers shipped out, but Richard was assigned to “limited service.” His boss, Col. Boyd, said that Richard, at 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 145 pounds, was “too thin for battlefield service.”
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Richard said he “wanted to get in on the action.” Sent to Borden General, 25 miles from Fort Sill, he was “fattened up to ‘target size’ to get certified for active service.”
Marj once worked for famed editor William Allen White of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette. One day she answered the phone and asked who was calling. The voice said “Tell him it’s FDR.” Marj called over to her boss, “Someone who says he’s the president wants to speak to you!” Roosevelt was laughing when White came on the line.
Marj attended library school at Oklahoma College for Women and played saxophone in a girl’s band. Then, on to Borden where she met her gangly lad.
On their first date, Richard forgot his wallet and was late because he had been polishing his Sam Brown Belt, a strap worn by Army officers over the right shoulder. On their second date, at a rodeo, he cheered so loudly that Marjory thought he might be a mental patient. Back at Borden, she asked a friend in records to check Richard’s file.
Richard was offered an officer billet with a black Artillery Company. He had to sign an oath that he had no racial prejudice. He could say truthfully that he did not know the difference between black Americans and white people, “except that some are black and some are white.”
In England, his company was kept on base and was not permitted leave in villages. They heroically did battle in France and Belgium, but there were no USO entertainers for them.
Meanwhile, “Marj planned our wedding. She made her own dress and invited her boarding house landlady, Mrs. Dexter, and the two house servants, Tricia and Texana, to the wedding.”
“The Methodist Church in town informed Marj that the black servants would have to sit in the balcony. So Marj moved the wedding to a chapel on base. Tricia and Texana, ‘dressed to the nines,’ sat in the front row.”
In 1952, Richard was hired to teach animal science at Cal Poly. Marj eventually retired as associate director of the San Luis Obispo City/County Library in 1987.
Among Marj’s legendary accomplishments was founding the Annual Friends of the Library Book Sale, for which she “shanghaied” Richard.
All year, we look forward to the Library Book Sale at the Veterans Memorial Building, 801 Grand Avenue in San Luis Obispo.
The book sale is set from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday with a members-only sale, costing $10 to join. The public sale runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
Liz Krieger contributed to this week’s column. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.