North Carolina Department of Correction news release

Aldie Johnson retires at age 86

Newland - A gentle scolding from the grandmotherly nurse at Blue Ridge Youth Center has dissolved the anger and machismo of many an inmate over the years. Staff and inmates say they will miss the 86 year-old Aldie Johnson who is retiring from her full-time nursing job May 30. She is the oldest employee working in state government.

"I don't know of anyone who has spent any time with Ms. Johnson who doesn't come away a better person," said Superintendent Keith Osteen.

Aldie Weld was born April 21, 1911 in a farm house that once stood near where one of the guard towers stands today at Avery Correctional Center. "Daddy grew everything we had to eat, and raised horses and cattle," Johnson said.

She and her sister would ride their horses to school in Crossnore, four miles away, and walk when it was muddy or icy. School didn't stop back then if the weather was bad. She graduated from Altamount Consolidated High School in 1928. "I knew what I wanted to do," Johnson said. "I was not dry behind the ears. I was always picking up injured animals on the farm."

The young Aldie went to nursing school in Memphis at the University of Tennessee, graduating in 1931. She returned to Avery County in 1933, married Herbie Johnson, started working at the local hospital in Crossnore and had three children. One of those children, Dan, would later become superintendent of Avery Correctional Center.

When her father, Myron Weld, died in 1936, her mother, Bessie, sold 100 acres of their land to the state. Avery Correctional Center was built on that property soon thereafter.

Johnson had been director of nursing at Crossnore's hospital for 25 years and came to know the Avery Prison superintendent, Tom Laws, when he would come by to check on sick inmates. He was able to convince her to come by the prison for a month after she go off work. She agreed and got hooked.

"Prison work is very addictive," Johnson said. "I really do enjoy it, and I enjoy the kids. They are hungry for somebody to talk to."

Johnson told Laws he really needed a nurse at the prison. He said he already had one and suggested she just continue. That began her 20-year career in the Department of Correction.

When her youngest son, Dan, graduated from the Montana State University with a botany degree and couldn't find a job, Laws suggested he work at the prison as an officer until he found another job. Laws hooked another Johnson, and later promoted Dan to program supervisor. He has been superintendent at Avery Correctional Center since 1992.

Dan didn't have a problem working at the same place as his mother, except for one time when he had arranged for the transfer of an inmate and forgot to send the medication with him. "I got chewed out in a big way that afternoon," Dan said.

In 1990, Ms. Johnson moved across the street from the Avery prison to Blue Ridge Youth Center when it opened. She and her son talk nearly every day. "I figured she'd work at least until I retired," Dan said.

Ms. Johnson is serious about her job noting that the prison has had a good record with the national commission on health care. But it is her words of consolation that are more soothing than any medication.

Johnson says a new inmate starts out with a stern expression and a backbone as straight as a rod, but after a day or two he lets his hair down and she hears his troubles, typically family problems.

"Some have told me their mother didn't care where they were as long as he wasn't under her feet. They have had no one to tell them the rules for living and they are very immature.

"I try to tell them they picked the wrong friends. They should get into church work, get involved and they won't have time to get in trouble, and to choose a girlfriend from that group.

"You see some good results occasionally which makes up for the inmates who come back after a month or so. The public is not very good with people who are just out of prison."

Johnson arrives at the prison at 5:45 each morning to see sick inmates before their workday starts. Many inmates work on a team fighting forest fires and clearing mountain trails. The inmates enjoy their work and don't want to be kept from it even when they aren't feeling well.

On a typical day, Johnson will see an inmate with a toothache, backache, sunburn, or an upset stomach. "I hold my breath when they do the ropes course," Johnson said about the prison's rigorous training program. Also, inmates with chain saw cuts get taken directly to the emergency room. "I don't sew," Johnson said.

The inmates respond to her calming influence. "She's the sweetest woman I've ever met," said one, and another, "She takes care of all of us, like we're her grandkids."

"When I first started, I didn't think I could do it," Johnson said, "but it grows on one."

That soothing voice and loving, gentle touch will long be remembered in the mountains of Avery County.

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