Lawyer and Lt. Col. Rufus W. Johnson, 96

Johnson received the Bronze Star.
Johnson received the Bronze Star. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Rufus Johnson liked to say he had two memorable moments in his life.

"I spilled soup on a president and didn't get fired, and I kicked a general in the rear and didn't get court-martialed," the former White House butler, Army lieutenant colonel and lawyer would tell visitors, with slight exaggeration.

Col. Johnson, 96, who died of ischemia July 1 at his stepdaughter's home in Kerrville, Tex., also successfully argued a case before the California Supreme Court that won American Indians the right to use peyote in religious rituals.

His life was so colorful that it could be a movie.

"It's impossible to put his whole life in there, because I'd have a five-hour movie," said Albert Barrera, a San Benito, Tex., screenwriter who is trying to sell such a script, called "Seventh Son."

Start at the beginning: Rufus Winfield Johnson was the seventh son of a seventh son, born on a farm in Montgomery County. After his mother died when he was 4, he was raised by an aunt and uncle in Coatesville, Pa.

That's where he ran into racial prejudice. Repeatedly robbed by bullies, he learned to box at a YMCA. He was a Boy Scout but was one patch short of making Eagle Scout; he couldn't earn the swimming patch because African Americans were barred from the local pools, a restriction that galled him almost to his dying day.

Despite his father's wishes that he return to the farm, the young man graduated from Howard University and had just finished its law school when he went to work at the White House in 1939. He had been certified as a lifeguard as part of his ROTC training at Howard and learned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose legs were crippled by polio, needed someone to keep an eye on him as he exercised in his pool.

"I never had to help him," Col. Johnson told the San Antonio Express-News in 2006. "He was an independent guy. He didn't want nobody touching him unless they had to."

That position led to another, in 1941, as Roosevelt's butler, a job that sometimes required lifting the president, which the muscular swimmer was able to do easily. His job also led to a unforgettable moment. Roosevelt, seeking an advantage while dining with a political adversary, reached up to his butler's tray and calmly tipped a bowl of soup into his own lap, talking all the while, as his dining companions looked on, horrified.

Eleanor Roosevelt, learning that the butler supplemented his 12-hour workdays with studying for the bar examination, assigned him to serve her tea in the afternoons. But he never poured a drop, because the first lady insisted that he spend those two hours studying, not serving. He took the bar exam in 1942, but World War II interfered, and it was 1944 before he learned he had passed.

Col. Johnson almost didn't get into the Army. The 5-foot-6 1/2 -inch ROTC officer had to stand on tiptoe to pass the regular Army's 5-foot-7-inch standard.

As a captain, he served in the Army's 92nd Infantry Division, the "Buffalo soldiers," an all-black unit that fought in Italy. Its white commander, Maj. Gen. Edward Almond, sent the troops repeatedly to a hill controlled by Germans, to mark their positions while the division waited for orders for a spring offensive. When then-Capt. Johnson's unit's turn came up, Almond was tired of waiting. He commanded the 20 soldiers to take the hill.

As Col. Johnson later told Barrera, the assignment was a suicide mission. Even after the unit's size was doubled at his insistence, only a handful of the men survived. Near the top of the hill, the captain found himself alone with an injured sergeant. He shot a German who was about to launch a grenade. The grenade exploded, killing several Germans and giving the former White House butler time to pick up the sergeant and carry him, under fire, to safety.

When he returned, he headed for Almond's tent.

"Rufus charged into the tent, and he just went off on the general," Barrera said. "Almond pointed to the stars on his shoulder and said, 'You can't be talking to me like that.' Rufus told him, 'I just escaped flying shrapnel. A little metal on your shoulder doesn't scare me.' "

As Col. Johnson told the story, the men got into a shoving match, and Almond tumbled to the floor. The furious general first ordered the captain shot and then said a court-martial would do. Cooler heads on Almond's staff noted that a court-martial would show that Almond had violated his own orders to wait for a spring offensive. When a regimental commander recommended a Silver Star for the young captain, Almond tore the recommendation to shreds, burned the scraps and sent the ashes to the captain, Barrera said.

Col. Johnson's military awards later included a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

After the war, he returned to the Washington area, where he opened a law firm. He moved to San Bernardino, Calif., about 1949 and was reactivated during the Korean War. He served as one of the first African Americans in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps and as adjutant inspector general before leaving active duty in 1953. He retired from the Army Reserve in 1971.

Back in California, Col. Johnson accepted a case from Jack Woody, a Navajo Indian who had been convicted of illegal possession of peyote for use in a religious ceremony. Col. Johnson argued the case before the California Supreme Court, and in 1964, the court reversed the decision, citing the importance of the free exercise of religion.

Col. Johnson closed his law practice in 1978 and moved to Fayetteville, Ark. In 1995, he moved to Texas.

His first marriage, to Rosena Johnson, ended in divorce. His wife of 34 years, Vaunda Smith, died in 2005.

Survivors include three stepchildren, Yvonne Smith of Kerrville and Jack Wagner and Rodney Wagner, both of Brookings, Ore.; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

The day before Col. Johnson died, a doctor from the local Veterans Administration hospital who was also a Boy Scout leader came for a visit. He brought along some Eagle Scouts and a document. Nearly 80 years after racial prejudice had thwarted his dream, Col. Johnson was made an honorary Eagle Scout.

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