Commentary: Doc Johnson wasn’t one to sit and take up space on earth


Doc Johnson croaked the other day.

I am not being disrespectful. That’s what Doc wanted in his obituary: He croaked.

Yes, that’s an unusual request, but Doc Johnson was an unusual guy. He was who he was. He was comfortable in his skin—and in his overalls, worn T-shirt, and long, scraggly hair and beard, all of which might disguise the encyclopedic mind that could reveal surprising information about most any subject.

I knew Doc about 20 years, and I learned much sitting in his living room, traveling with him and interviewing him. He was one of the people featured in  Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions and Practices from Southern Appalachia, a book Jessica Phillips Henricks and I wrote to benefit the Foxfire Fund.

He accompanied me on a road trip to Kentucky, his home state, where we gathered three more stories for the book. Our first stop was to interview Carl Foster, a longtime eccentric friend of Doc’s.

“Does this guy know we’re coming?” I asked Doc.

“No, I couldn’t get in touch with him,” he said.

Turned out, Foster didn’t have a phone or email. “If something happened,” Foster said after he fed his dogs leftover biscuits and we settled down in his kitchen, “like a doctor wanted to raise my insulin, now he’ll have to send me a postcard.”

Next on the agenda was interviewing Carl “Feel Bad” Davis, who collected tractors and trucks, and then Hollis Thrasher, who owned and worked a pack of Belgian mules. They knew we were coming.

Doc Johnson knew a lot of people, because he mastered a lot of different things.

He had been a police detective, youth counselor, teacher, artist, lecturer, archaeologist, historian, naturalist, defender of Native Americans, musician, welder, fiddle maker, writer, social worker, the list goes on. If you wanted something made or welded, Doc was the man to see. I possess one of his “canjos,” a banjo with a round, metal can as the head.

Doc didn’t subscribe to cable TV or satellite service because he paid the city to take garbage out, and he wasn’t paying anybody to bring it back in.

Joseph Lloyd “Doc” Johnson — who started calling himself “Sleeping Dog” about three years ago — was one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. If someone needed help, or wanted something he’d made, he most likely would accommodate.

Doc, incidentally, was so nicknamed because his father lost a poker game to a doctor friend from World War II. Doc was better than Delmus, the doctor’s real name.

Several times, Doc and I went fishing and rock hunting together. One time, on a lake near our home, he walked out into the water about mid-thigh deep, rested a chair on the bottom, sat down and flyfished for whatever was biting. And if there was an Indian artifact somewhere, he would spot it.

Julia, his wife, knows I’ll miss my talks with Doc. He was a good friend.

But, as he said, we all have to croak sometime.

Phil Hudgins is a retired newspaper editor and author from Gainesville, Ga.. Reach him at