NORFOLK (NNS) -- Sailors assigned to Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force (COMOPTEVFOR) kicked off Women's History Month by having guest speaker and mayor of Suffolk, Virginia, Linda Johnson, speak about her personal journeys as a woman, March 20.
Keeping with this year's Women's History Month theme, "Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives", Johnson gave the crowd stories about her life as a woman, her accomplishments, and what it took to get to where she's at today.
"It wasn't an easy road," she explained. "Sadly, this country didn't always have a spirit of equality and fairness."
Johnson thanked the group of female Sailors in the audience for their service and legacy, and for having demonstrated what was possible in serving their country.
"I am in awe of your courage," said Johnson. "I respect your choice to serve your country and am truly grateful to be speaking to you today."
As female role model, mayor, and longtime Suffolk resident, Johnson has played a big part in fueling the growth of her city. Johnson said that she's like a mama bear - don't mess with her family... or her city.
"I'm a go-getter but I'm also a very compassionate person," said Johnson. "When it comes to negotiation for my city, I'm extremely tenacious. I'll stand there and not move or budge when it's for the betterment of [Suffolk]."
For Johnson, family and city are deeply intertwined. She has been married for 42 years to her childhood sweetheart, Jesse James Johnson Jr., and they live one mile up the river from where she was raised.
Johnson married her husband while she was attending Westhampton College at the University of Richmond. While there, she earned her bachelor's in English and journalism with a minor in sociology. After her husband graduated from law school, they moved back home to Suffolk.
"It wasn't a great time for women," said Johnson, who taught English and also stayed home with her son. "There was still the mentality that women weren't allowed to do a lot of the things that men could do. That included what career I 'could have' as a woman."
So as the years went by, tired of playing the "stay-at-home mom" role, she began to ask herself what she wanted to do with her life.
A meeting with a developer named Joseph Carpenter helped pave Johnson's path into the real estate business.
"I walked a piece of property with him, and as he painted a vision of what the property would be, I decided I wanted to be a realtor," said Johnson, as she reminisced about the career she started in 1986.
She worked for Carpenter until he died, then went to Long & Foster for nine years before she landed with Prudential Towne Realty. It was important, she said, to be with a company based in Suffolk.
That career - including its flexibility - enabled her to delve into another interest, which she more than likely developed through her bloodline. That's because both her parents were active in local politics, always aware of what was going on in the city.
"When I was younger, I remember that there were talks of an oil refinery being built," Johnson said. "My father made me attend the meetings with him all the time."
Her parents, proud that she wanted to pursue a career in politics, researched the information needed to kick-start her political career. They gave that information to Johnson and asked her to speak at a community meeting.
"[My parents] taught me to be involved and what it actually means to be involved," Johnson said of her parents, saying she feels her late father upon her shoulder every day.
In 2000, a woman board member - among six men - was stepping down from a city council seat. Johnson took initiative and decided she would fill that seat, thus starting her venture into politics. She represented that seat for two terms and then became Suffolk's first female mayor, appointed by the city council on July 5, 2006.
With Johnson's leadership, she helped save a then struggling city.
"What's happened since 2006 is a miracle, because we were virtually on the verge of financial crisis," said Johnson.
In 2008, Johnson was again named the city's mayor - this time elected by the people.
Johnson describes herself as a consensus builder and a citizens' advocate who strives to improve the quality of life in Suffolk.
"I try to keep the city run efficiently and effectively," she said. "I make sure every community in the city of Suffolk has availability of public safety."
As for being the first female mayor of the city, Johnson said she doesn't think about it that much, but concedes about how young women may feel inspired by her.
"It shows them how today you can take any seat, at any table," she said.
As a woman, and as a leader, Johnson is ready and willing to do whatever is needed for the city. She can often be found volunteering with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels, Humane Society, Relay for Life and more.
"Something as simple as being mayor, or volunteering in your community, may seem pretty small," said Johnson. "But I want you all to remember that no matter how little a difference you think you make, in reality, it can be a potentially big impact on history and society. I'm a firm believer that your impact as a woman can change this world for the better."
For more news from Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force, visit www.navy.mil/local/COTF/.