Sam was born on Nov. 17, 1920 in Hubbard, Texas to Flora Brown and Sam D. Johnson, Sr. His father died tragically when Sam was 8 years old and his mother subsequently him in Hubbard. He was also influenced by two sets of loving mentors and surrogate parents" his Aunt Dixie and Uncle Jimmy Johnson and Eleanor and Professor Lowell Wilkes. Throughout his life he continued to feel a deep love for Hubbard and for his many friends there.
In 1938 he began Baylor University, a very strict Baptist school. This was a challenge to him. Still, Sam managed to combine college with fun. He became a member of the notorious"NoZe Brotherhood" where he was christened "Brother Rough NoZe" Johnson.
During WWII, Sam served in France as a combat infantryman in the 95th Infantry Division, Third Army under General Patton. He saw fierce in the battle for the French city of Metz on the French/German border. On his 24th birthday, he was wounded outside Metz and carried shrapnel from those wounds in his body for the rest of his life. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in action, the Bronze Star for valor and the Combat Infantryman's Badge. One of Sam's greatest memories from WWII was returning to Metz's liberation from the Nazis. There the people if Metz occupation was a well remembered tragedy, honoring Sam and the other returning members of the 95th Infantry as the selfless heroes that they were.
Following the war, Sam made what he called the smartest decision of his life when he married June Page of Raymondville, Texas. During his Fifth Circuit retirement ceremony, Sam said of June, "she is the person who knows me best; she is the person responsible for being here. Let me put in another way, I would never have been on this Court or any other court without her.
After graduating from law school, Sam and June moved to Hillsboro where he began his legal career. He was elected County Attorney and the District Attorney for Hill County. In 1958, he was elected Hill County District Judge. Like Hubbard, Sam had a deep and abiding love for Hillsboro and its people and returned there often.
In 1965, Sam resigned as District Judge and moved to Houston to establish and become the first director of the Houston Legal Foundation – a pilot program providing legal services for indigents. Sam was committed to making the legal system work for all people. This Foundation remains in existence today as the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation, enabling the poor to receive legal representation in both civil and criminal matters.
In 1967, Sam was appointed as a justice on the newly created Texas Fourteenth Court of Apeals in Houston. Five years later, in 1972, he announced that he was seeking election to a vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court. Sam's reputation for fairness and for action had spread throughout the state. He was known as a "man of the people" – honest, firm, courteous, professional and intellectually sound. No one filed to run against him. This marked the only time in Texas history that a non-incumbent has been elected unopposed to a vacancy on this court.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Sam ultimately served on the bench for over 35 years and authored ore than 900 opinions.
During his legal career, Judge Johnson has more than 50 law clerks, young law school graduates who aided in legal research and writing. He was adamant that these clerks treat each case with due respect and uphold the dignities of the parties involved. He truly enjoyed his law clerks. He enjoyed their friendship, enjoyed mentoring them and enjoyed following their subsequent careers. In his chambers, "morning coffee" was a daily ritual in which Sam, the clerks and the secretaries shared coffee, conversation and camaraderie. As each clerk's term expired, he felt a personal loss bidding them goodbye.
He was an active Presbyterian serving as a teacher, deacon and elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Hillsboro, Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston and Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin. He also served two terms as a board member of the Presbyterian Children's Home,
He was a "diehard" Baylor fan, serving as President of the Baylor Alumni Association and in 1978, he was named as a Baylor Distinguished Alumn. In 1996, Baylor awarded Sam the Price Daniel, Sr. Lifetime Public Service Award. In his office he proudly displayed autographed pictures of Baylor athletic greats Michael Johnson and Mike Singletary.
Despite his many accomplishments, Sam always exhibited a humble demeanor, never taking himself too seriously. He treated each person, whether a janitor or a United States Supreme Court Justice, with the same uniform concern and respect. He had an infectious smile and a notorious and irrepressible sense of humor and was a lifelong devotee to the Peanuts, Andy Capp, Doonesbury and Bloom County comic strips.
Sam began jogging before jogging became fashionable. For nearly 30 years he was an institution on the Austin hike and bike trail. Many Austinites knew Sam only as the friendly man with his little black dog who jogged on the trail and waved to everyone.
He was a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, June; his daughter, Page Johnson Harris and husband, Barney, of Conyers, Ga., his daughter Jane Johnson Clements and his son Sam Johnson and wife, Jennifer, of Austin. Also surviving are granddaughters June Clements, Amber Clements, Elizabeth Harris and Kathryn Page Harris, and great-granddaughters Maggie Stewart and a sister Jerry Wier of New Orleans. Surviving nieces and nephews are Mark Shearer, Jean Jones, Sam Scoates and Jim Scoates. He was preceded in death by his sister Margaret Scoates and his beloved nephew Joe Wier. Other survivors include Cindy and Ervin Wolfshohl and their family, brother-in-law, Bill Scoates of Bryan and Ryan Steward of Austin.
Visitation will be Monday July 29 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Weed Corley-Fish Funeral Home, 312 North Lamar Blvd. The service will be held at Covenant Presbyterian Church at 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 30 with internment following at the Texas State Cemetery.
Memorials may be made to the Sam D. Johnson Professorship, Baylor Law School or the Presbyterian Children's Home.
Weed Corley-Fish, Austin