ASHEBORO — Hal Johnson left his last commissioners meeting on Jan. 2 with an armload of awards. For his 48 years of service to Randolph County, the county manager was officially inducted into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine and recognized by the NC Senate for his contributions to public service.
Johnson was surrounded by the five commissioners and NC Sen. Dave Craven to be honored on his retirement after nearly 50 years with the county.
Chairman Darrell Frye said, "Getting ready for today, I have to ask how you sum up 48 years of a person's life. Forty-eight years of the life Hal has lived, worked, and served among us to the taxpaying citizens of this county. … When he came along, and when I came, none of those things existed in this county. We didn't have ambulance services, 911 services, Randleman Lake. We take those for granted. Now the county benefits from it today. Hal has played a key role in every one of those situations, every one of those areas of growth that's taken place."
Sen. Craven said of the Long Leaf Pine, "We have presented a number of these over the years, and none more deserving or applicable than today." He then presented Johnson with a framed certificate, signed by Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson who serves as the Senate president, recognizing the many years of contributions to public service. That was entered into the record of the NC Legislature.
Johnson then called his wife Gloria to join him as his thanked the commissioners and Craven for their honors. “The last nine years, no board (of commissioners) has had to deal with as many complex issues,” he said. “The impact will be on people’s lives who are not even born yet. I’m proud of what’s gone on the past few years. It’s been historic.”
Later, in an interview, Johnson looked back on his decades with Randolph County administration while also explaining why he is now retiring.
“It’s the right time for me, especially with the birth of my first grandchild,” Johnson said. Emma Jane Lewis was born on Nov. 8, 2023. “I will be spending time with my first grandchild. I had a health issue a year ago, so I thought it was time to enter the next chapter of my life.”
After graduating from Pfeiffer University and doing a stint with the Army, Johnson joined Randolph County in 1975 through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, or CETA, according to Johnson’s biography written by Sara Mogilski, NC Association of County Commissioners COO.
During the 1970s, Randolph County faced a crisis with the delivery of emergency medical services, relying on local funeral homes to provide ambulance service. “Johnson recognized changing this familiar system would be concerning for residents and yet, knew they would be better off with a more reliable and capable service. He sought grant funding through the Governor’s Highway Safety Program and developed a mobile intensive care program within the county’s emergency services department. He spearheaded a project to institute a 911 emergency dial system, which required naming 4,000 roads and intersections, and recently oversaw the build of a sophisticated 911 call center.”
According to Mogilski, “Johnson was appointed Randolph County’s first planning director in 1987, and so began his work navigating and negotiating complex land use and zoning issues.
“Randolph County commissioner and chairman Darrell Frye saw that Johnson was particularly well-suited for the challenging work, ‘Zoning can get to be very controversial at times and there’s usually two sides to a zoning issue. Hal has a demeanor and personality that fits that process perfectly. I hear that a lot from our citizens. Hal has an easy way of getting things done and showing people how it’s important that we get them done.’
“Everything Hal has done for this county has been transformational,” Frye said. “It (the county’s planning and zoning work) is as important and even more used today than it was 35 years ago.”
Frye continued, “He’s been quite a guy. He’s done it all. He’s done everything that’s ever been asked of him and made it a success. He can leave with his head high and know he served the county well.”
In his interview with Randolph Hub, Johnson talked about “how much I’ve appreciated the opportunity to work with county government and as county manager. Changes have been ongoing, things we never dreamed of.”
He said the role of county government has evolved and become more complex. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, “and its requirements impacted all departments and placed more responsibility on government. Now, economic development is creating jobs, a role that has fallen on the county.”
Johnson alluded to the $85 million allotted by the state to Randolph County to strengthen its water and sewer capabilities in the county. That’s in addition to the $50 million from the state to the City of Asheboro to run a water line to the Wolfspeed megasite just over the line in Chatham County.
The opioid drug crisis is another example of the county taking action, Johnson said. “Randolph County had one of the highest addiction statistics in the state. We were one of the leaders” by joining a court case against drug companies and suppliers of opioids. Settlement of the case is bringing millions of dollars to the county.
“In my 48 years, no county government has had to address as many issues,” he said. “The commissioners have been searching ways to address them. Not one person has all the answers, but the commissioners have faced them and haven’t kicked them down the road.”
Johnson didn’t forget the formation of the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite that finally lured the Toyota Battery Plant. It all started, he said, nine or 10 years ago when the commissioners “had the courage to take a stand,” being the first to purchase land for the megasite. “They took a lot of criticism,” Johnson said. “The state supported them but there were no partners when the county took a stand.
“It’s beyond our wildest dream what Toyota is doing,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s a positive impact.” That was the impetus for the Northeast Randolph County Growth Management Plan, a months-long series of meetings to assure that growth blends economic development with rural quality of life.
“Randolph County is the epicenter of North Carolina and the Eastern Seaboard,” said Johnson. “Change is coming to the county. We’ve tried to look to the future.”
With Toyota and Wolfspeed coming in the years ahead, Johnson doesn’t plan to ride off into the sunset. “I hope there’s a role I can play,” he said. “I’ve been in public service a long time and if possible I’d like the opportunity to contribute.”