SIDNEY — Judy Johnson, of Sidney, didn’t set out to break a glass ceiling when she responded to a notice that appeared in the Sidney Daily News a few months ago.
Her husband, Benjamin, had died in April, and a neighbor, who saw the notice, thought Johnson might be just the person the writer was looking for. So, Johnson responded. And a 143-year-old glass ceiling shattered.
The writer was Rich Wallace, chairman of the Monumental Building Board of Trustees. The board had a vacancy to fill.
The historic building on the corner of Court Street and Ohio Avenue in downtown Sidney is maintained and governed by a board of trustees.
“A special act was passed in the 1870 general assembly,” Wallace told the Daily News, Wednesday, Aug. 8. The act established a cultural center in Sidney as a monument to the county’s Civil War dead. It was the first time a building was commissioned as a monument. The law required that a board, representative of all the people of Shelby County, be formed to own and manage the building. It also required that all board members be veterans.
The board convened immediately — even though the building wasn’t completed until five years later — and for 143 years, it has taken care of the monument.
For 143 years, the veterans who comprise the board have been men. Until now.
In July, Johnson attended her first meeting as a Monumental Building trustee. Her fellow trustees are Wallace, Herb Hoying, Lance Soliday and Mark Deam, all of Sidney; Jim Hall, of Port Jefferson; Larry Fultz, of Botkins; Roger Lentz and Jim Kopppin, both of Anna; Bill Ross, of Nola, Louisiana; and John Turner, of Fort Loramie.
According to Wallace, because the board is supposed to represent all the people of Shelby County, trustees thought it was high time to include a female veteran. The newspaper notice announced an opening on the board and invited women veterans to apply.
“We’re excited to have her,” Wallace said.
Johnson is just as excited to join the board.
“I only knew the Monumental Building as a teen center,” she said. “I went to the Shelby County Historical Society to get history (about it). There’s so much information, I have to go back and keep reading it. I never realized there was a Sgt. Baker on top of the building,” she added, referring to a statue perched in a niche near the roof.
Wallace noted that while the trustees are responsible for the structure, the city of Sidney maintains it in exchange for rent-free use of the third floor where it houses the municipal court. In addition, the Veterans Services office pays rent for its first-floor offices there, which covers the operating expenses of the board.
This is not the first time Johnson has pierced glass ceilings. Her military service gave her several opportunities to do that.
Johnson joined the Army soon after her 1970 graduation from Sidney High School. Photos of her father in uniform — he had served during World War II — had impressed her as a child.
“I was so proud of him. I wanted to wear a uniform, too,” she said. Because she was under 21 and a woman, her parents had to sign a permit to allow her to enlist. She joined the Women’s Army Corps and became a WAC.
Her dad was very proud of her. Mom was not so sure.
“I always remember the day the recruiter came to pick me up. (Mom) was at the door, crying. It broke my heart,” Johnson said.
She flew to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for basic training.
“We got there at 11 at night. They fed us stale peanut butter sandwiches and rotten bananas. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” she said. Basic training for WACs was different from basic training for men. Johnson didn’t have to learn to use a weapon, didn’t learn combat skills. Instead, she was trained in physical fitness, first aid and military customs, courtesy, drills and ceremony.
From there, it was off to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for training to become a combat medic and advanced training as a licensed practical nurse. She met her future husband there, graduated in 1972 and was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, where she worked in practical nursing for nine years.
She was named Soldier of the Month, then Soldier of the Quarter and then Soldier of the Year in her hospital unit during her time there. As a noncommissioned officer, she was nominated by her supervisor and selected as NCO of the year at her hospital and in her region. She thinks that’s what led to her next move.
“I was assigned to be a drill instructor at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I was training a platoon of 60 to 65 soldiers in basic training. Coming from a nursing background, that was challenging,” she said. Johnson had to teach things she had never learned herself, like how to take apart an M-16 rifle and put it back together. She found herself learning, just one step ahead of the recruits, what she was teaching them. She was the only female drill instructor in her unit at Fort Jackson at the time.
After one and a half years, Johnson was appointed senior field leader of a company, one of two women in that job.
“I really felt the pressure. They compared my company to another one led by men. I had to prove myself every day, but that was the most rewarding part of my career. I learned what I was capable of doing,” she said.
One of the things she had to teach there was were the stationary and marching movements of a drilling ceremony. She practiced by teaching them to her then nine-year-old daughter.
“I figured if I could teach her, I could teach them — but I couldn’t,” she said. The soldiers just weren’t getting it. So Johnson took her daughter to the training session and had her go through the positions.
“You ought to be ashamed,” she told the soldiers. “A nine-year-old can do this and you can’t.” The soldiers got the message.
In 1984, Johnson became ward master of the oncology inpatient unit of Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Colorado. A year later, she was transferred to the 98th General Hospital in Nuremberg, Germany. After four years in Europe, she returned to the states to become chief ward master, supervising all enlisted personnel in the department of nursing, at the Cutler Army Community Hospital in Massachusetts.
“I give my husband and daughter credit for hte success of my military career. They sacrificed a lot to that,” she said.
Johnson left the service in 1992 to care for her mother, who had suffered a stroke. She continued her practical nursing career as a civilian, first at Stouder Memorial Hospital in Troy and then at Digestive Specialty Care in Piqua, where she started as a staff nurse and became the practice manager in 2002. She retired in 2017.
“My neighbors saw the (Monumental Building board) notice in April, about a month after my husband passed away. They knew how much my military service meant to me. I prayed a couple days. I thought this may be just what I need,” Johnson said.
Serving on the board gives her a chance to be more involved in the community. She also volunteers for Sidney First United Methodist Church’s Relay for Life team and helped man the admission gates at the Shelby County Fair. She has applied to be a hospice family advocate.
And recently, she became “mom” to a rescue German shepherd, Mocha. She is a real mom to daughter, Tammy Johnson Beard, and son-in-law, James Beard, of Henrico, Virginia, and grandmother to their three sons.
The Monumental Building position is her first foray into boardsmanship.
“I’m hoping to become an active participant in the activities they sponsor. The other board members were so welcoming. They shared their military history. You admire their sacrifices, too. I feel it’s a high honor to be on this board because of the military history it represents. I’m part of a society that honors historical veterans who’ve gone before us,” she said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.