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Op-Ed: My Suburban West Hartford Experience

Johnson family home. Courtesy of James Johnson

This Op-Ed was submitted and intended to be in contrast to ‘Welcome to the Souls of Black Folks, Connecticut,’ in which the author, Jonathan Wharton, said he had a scarring experience growing up in West Hartford.

By James Johnson

“Other things may change, but we start and end with the family.” – Anthony Brandt

Connecticut, the Nutmeg State, is home to Yale University, United Technologies, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Governor Ned Lamont, David Letterman, and the Johnson Family. Hartford is the original home of Colt Manufacturing that produced the six-shooter – “the gun that won the West.”  The Hartford Courant is America’s oldest continuously published newspaper that began as a weekly on Oct. 29, 1764.

I spent my formative years growing up in suburban West Hartford. It was a typical small New England town with one movie theater (Central), one sporting goods store (Phil’s Sport Shop), The English Shop, and a post office all on LaSalle Road. Maxwell Drugs was on the corner of North Main Street and Farmington Avenue.

In 1954 a large white banner reflecting Centennial was spread high across from Maxwell Drugs to the other side of Farmington Avenue. Oh, my West Hartford what a wonderful town. However, it was not an ordinary town anywhere in America by virtue of its wealth, physical beauty, educational system, and the presence of the Johnson family. The photo at the top of this article is the original Johnson family home.

Until recently, on LaSalle you could find Patsy’s Barber Shoppe (Tyler, Dan, and Skip) one of the few remaining original businesses since 1958. For Chinese food, visit Song Restaurant at 74 LaSalle and for French food there’s Ávert. If you like burgers try Max Burger (Doug, Brett, Kieran, and Maria) at 124 LaSalle.

Our family dentist was Dr. Newell on LaSalle Road. When you need dental services today visit LaSalle Family Dental formerly owned Dr. Katz, a Tufts University alum. Dr. Katz is a dental commissioner for the State of Connecticut and a clinical professor at Tufts University. He recently retired from active practice in August 2018. Today LaSalle Family Dental is owned Dr. Agarwal, a Boston University alum. Dr. Agarwal follows the Boston Red Sox and my favorite team the Boston Celtics. He is ably assisted by dental hygienists Jessica Katz and Jennifer Rodriguez.

Sunset Farm

Back in the day, if you were driving through Sunset Farm or Mountain Terrace Road in the early evening you would see a young boy on his bike tossing folded newspapers at the front door of homes. In Sunset Farm you might see Bill Butler on his Palomino horse or the Bollings on their gelding horse named Wendy. The Bollings also owned a Hunter that stood 16 hands high. For the uninformed a horse is measured in height by hands.

On Mountain Terrace, you would see the owners of Tunxis Pharmacy, George Loalbo and Frank Bonelli, who gave me my first job after high school, in the fall, from 3 to 6 p.m. Also, in this subdivision lived one of the owners of Woolridge Brothers, ESSO gas station at the intersection of Farmington Avenue and the Boulevard. Mr. Woolridge purchased the first 1958 Edsel motor vehicle in the neighborhood. The Edsel was manufactured by Ford Motor Company and was discontinued that same year. He always had a big HELLO and a Christmas present for me. 

If you kept driving in this area, you might meet Mr. Hansen, the General Manager of International Business Machines (IBM) in Hartford. He owned a Chrysler Imperial, Pontiac convertible, VW bus, and a boat. The reason I remember all of this is that his son Jim was my friend and a member of the Conard High School basketball team.

When you heard the roar of a sports car engine, you knew that Jean Forden, the mother of my friend Jim Forden, was in her Jaguar.

Keep in mind this was the late 1950s before Bridlepath Pharmacy, Stop & Shop, and Friendly Ice Cream in the strip center near the intersection of Farmington Avenue and the Boulevard. Blue Back Square and the new Hall High School were in the distant future. This was a time when you could leave two or three cars in the driveway with keys in the ignition and the screen door unlocked.

Those days have long passed, but this was the solidly upper-upper middle class environment that helped to develop my character, personality, values, and demeanor. 

For those of you who never heard of this writer you should be able to glean that I am the unofficial town historian and a proud ambassador of West Hartford. In fact, I challenge all readers to investigate the places and people mentioned in this story because the past is a window to the present and the future.

On January 24, 1963, then Town Manager Richard H. Custer appointed my mother, Marion Johnson, to the Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Redevelopment. Also appointed was Rev. Gurdon Scoville, Pastor of Westminster Church on the Boulevard. His son John became my friend at Sedgwick Junior High School.

Marion Johnson. Courtesy of Jim Johnson

Basketball

Every state, city, and town has a rich basketball history particularly at the high school level. This is where the game is purest, most dramatic ,and the most nostalgic records and exploits take place.

Of the three major sports, basketball has the most participants and draws the most spectators. Every year since 1958 the Conard and Hall gymnasiums are filled to the rafters when they play each other. It is reflective of community spirit and linked with the pleasant memories of youth. 

Enter Ed Driscoll, Jimmy Lawrence and Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Lawrence demonstrating his textbook jump shot that was as pure and as soft as newly fallen snow. Courtesy of Jim Johnson

Jimmy Lawrence. Courtesy of Jim Johnson

These three star players were the best and most exciting to watch in the decade of the late 1950s and all of the 1960s. In this time, with a few exceptions in the Greater Hartford area, Driscoll, Lawrence, and Johnson had no equal. A star is not something that flashes through the sky. That is called a comet or meteor. The kind of star that I am referring to is fixed, permanent and gives off a steady glow.

Ed Driscoll, Conard 1960, at 6’2’’ was so athletically gifted and advanced that he was a starter on the varsity at forward in his sophomore year. He was also the leading scorer. In addition, Ed was a starter on the varsity football and baseball teams. Ed was so athletic and physically attractive that he was dating upper class girls. Occasionally, I remember Ed chasing the girls and a few would slow down so he could catch up.

Jimmy Johnson (5), Ed Driscoll (13), and Jimmy Lawrence (21). Courtesy of Jim Johnson

Jimmy Lawrence, Hall 1961, 6’2’’ and pencil thin at 150 pounds. On the basketball court he was outstanding. He possessed a magnificent shooting touch with a deadly jump shot. And, if you guarded him too closely he was able to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket, including a reverse layup. Lawrence was a good leaper too and got his share of rebounds. To give you an idea of Jimmy’s prolific scoring, his jump shot was a tad better than Ed Driscoll. In his junior year Jimmy Lawrence shot 42% from the floor and 78% from the foul line.

Jimmy Johnson shoots for Conard. Courtesy of Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson, Conard captain in 1960, at 6’1’’ had a style all his own. He was a tremendous leaper and could dunk the basketball and bring the crowd to its feet. Johnson was a great defender in blocking shots and getting rebounds. Jimmy was also a very good offensive player with a variety of shots: a jumper from 19 feet, hook shots with either hand, tip-ins, or reverse layups. When Jimmy received the ball facing the basket he hesitated slightly to gauge and freeze the defender. And, then up and up some more to release his jumper that nobody could reach and block. His teammates, coaches, classmates, teachers, and opponents admired him.

The Johnson Family

Jimmy Johnson, who most people in town referred to as Jimmy –The Ball Player. Or, “you mean the boy driving the late model red Ford convertible?” 

In all my years, living in West Hartford I never heard anyone refer to me by color. As I look back, it was an experience elusive to African Americans anywhere in America. 

I have three sisters – Janice, Sandra, and Donna. They are Hall and Conard graduates and college educated. My mother was an educator with a master’s degree. My father was president of a trucking and moving company. When you travel on the Berlin Turnpike, Wilbur Cross Parkway and the Merritt Parkway to Darien, CT, my father’s company had the contract to provide and spread the steel reinforcement over which concrete was poured.

Now, I have answered any questions the reader may ask: How were you treated in being the only boy and African American family in town? Get this: one summer I was driving my new Ford car and was at fault in an auto accident. The police officer investigating the accident told the driver of the other car: “He is a local boy do not be too hard on him.” If you are not satisfied, ask my classmates, many of whom still live in West Hartford. Obviously, the Johnson family would not have been able to achieve success and become an integral part of West Hartford.

Keep the motor running and the headlights on because I want you to meet and see me my next time out.

About the Author

James A. Johnson is an accomplished trial lawyer, transactional attorney and a proud ambassador of West Hartford. He is an active member of the Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, and Federal Court bars. Jim concentrates on serious personal injury, insurance coverage, entertainment and sports law, and federal criminal defense. He can be reached at www.JamesAJohnsonEsq.com

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