After 95 years, Josephine Watkins-Johnson still a community leader


It may be tempting to describe someone like Josephine Watkins-Johnson as “sharp for her age.”

But Ms. Watkins-Johnson, a longtime Greenport resident who celebrated her 95th birthday Saturday at Brecknock Hall, isn’t just sharp for her age.

She’s sharp, period.

“Her memory is fantastic,” said her great-nephew Nate “Sonny” Bilaal, who grew up around the corner from the Kaplan Avenue house where Ms. Watkins-Johnson lived for more than 70 years before moving to Peconic Landing. “We get on the phone and I talk to her for eight, nine hours straight, just about everything.”

Ask for her birthdate and Ms. Watkins-Johnson, affectionately known as Jo, will answer without hesitation that she was born at “8:25 on the evening of March 3, 1921, on Catherine Street” in Richmond, Va. She moved to the North Fork with her mother, father and four siblings as a toddler. Soon after, her parents separated and the children moved with their mother and uncle Ed Green to Southold.

“At one point in time [the home] had been a hotel, so it was a huge house,” Ms. Watkins-Johnson recalled Saturday while greeting nearly 200 guests who had assembled to celebrate with her.

Despite the size of her childhood residence, Ms. Watkins-Johnson said, her family “barely had enough” to eat. Even so, her mother, Helen, “always took in” local children suffering from neglect.

“She washed their clothes and washed and shampooed their hair and divided whatever we had,” Ms. Watkins-Johnson said. “She always had something to give somebody.”

No doubt because of her mother’s efforts, Ms. Watkins-Johnson has also made it her life’s work to help those in need. She has long been involved with Community Action Southold Town and volunteers with the social ministry department at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Greenport.

“If people need something, she knows how to help them,” said her 63-year old daughter Donna Watkins. “She’s very generous with her time and resources.”

Ms. Watkins-Johnson, whose first husband, the late Ralph Watkins, supported the family as a postal worker, was formerly employed as a housekeeper and worked as a study hall proctor at Greenport Schools. She also served one term on the district’s school board and was a board of directors member of Greenport’s Perry Day Care Center, now closed.

“I remember her starting work as a teacher’s aide in the school around 1968,” said family friend David Levine, who grew up in Greenport and now resides in Riverdale in the Bronx.

Mr. Levine, who was introduced to Ms. Watkins-Johnson as a child by the school principal, said she had a formidable presence.

“She didn’t say a word, but the way she stood there, erect and looking straight ahead — you knew she was going to be in control,” he said. “She’s a small-town girl from Greenport, but she’s not provincial. She knows what’s going on. She’s worldly.”

Ms. Watkins-Johnson was as strict at home as she was in the classroom, said her 64-year-old son Tom. (Her two other children, Becky and Wendel, are deceased.)

“We had to make sure our chores were done, our homework was done before we went outside,” Mr. Watkins said.

His younger sister agreed.

“My mother wasn’t touchy-feely, but she was caring and taught us strong values and a good work ethic,” she said.

On Saturday, Ms. Watkins-Johnson said she felt “overwhelmed” by the number of people who had assembled at historic Brecknock Hall — a place her great-aunt Pearl once worked as a housekeeper — to commemorate her 95th birthday.

“I didn’t realize I had touched so many lives,” she said.

Southold Town Councilman Bill Ruland even presented Ms. Watkins-Johnson with a town proclamation recognizing her birthday, describing her as “tenacious.”

“When she believes in something, she’ll work at it,” he said. “We need more people like that.”

Stirling Historical Society president Gail Horton, who has known Ms. Watkins-Johnson for at least 50 years, called her friend a “real, true citizen.”

“She’s still lovingly supportive and very contributive. She’s just one of the best,” said Ms. Horton, who has worked alongside Ms. Waktins-Johnson at CAST food drives and other community functions. 

Not surprisingly, Ms. Watkins-Johnson used her birthday party as a chance to promote an upcoming chicken and fish dinner at Stirling Historical Society.

“I have tickets with me,” she said. “And I defy anyone to outsell me.”