Herman’s Farewell Tour

Turner 2012
Turner Field – 2012 (photo by Darrin Heatherly @JEMCapstone 2016)

 

By Darrin Heatherly

 

ATLANTA— When Turner Field officially became the home of the Atlanta Braves in 1997, one man spent every home game assisting and directing people to their seats. For the last 20 years, Herman Johnston, 73, has worked as an usher in aisle 310. He has seen multiple division titles claimed, listened to every player introduction and has worked more than 1,500 Turner Field home games. When the dust finally settles and Turner Field closes out for the last time on Oct. 2, 2016, Johnston will call it a career.

Johnston said he believes this is a calling for him to retire and focus on being a husband and grandfather more. Johnston’s wife, Shirley, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last November.

“After I learned about my job, my wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s right after,” Johnston said. “God was telling me something and I should pay attention.”

Shirley Johnston has been under the care of Herman’s son since her diagnosis last year. Wardell Johnston, 43, brings his children in to spend time with her to keep her spirits high. Shirley Johnston’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis is mild and in the first initial stage. Her memory is still strong, according to Wardell.

“She still knows us,” Wardell Johnston said. “She is different, stronger than you can imagine.”

Herman Johnston continues to work at Turner Field to clear his mind of the diagnosis. It has become his home away from home while his family helps care for his wife. Turner Field has introduced him to some of his closest friends and colleagues.

“I’ve spent my last 20 years wearing that navy and red,” Johnston said. “I’ve seen and met some wonderful people. I’ve rooted for the Braves in this stadium before a lot of these fans were born. When they go, I go. My wife needs me and my grandkids too.”

Herman Johnston has lived in Atlanta since 1983. He moved here in hopes of opening a restaurant with his wife. Johnston’s restaurant, a barbecue joint, buckled under financial pressure. Johnston found work in the offices of the old Fulton County Stadium as a data clerk.

“I remember the day they started constructing the stadium,” Johnston said. “I was twenty years quicker and smarter then. I could see it from my office window. It [Turner Field] was coming together so beautifully, all the Olympic signs, and the colors. Really, it was nice.”

Fulton County Stadium was torn down and replaced with a parking lot for the new Turner Field. Johnston began his first official day of work at the then-titled “Centennial Olympic Stadium” during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Johnston ushered in hundreds of people at a time.

He helped a significant figure find his seat before the lighting of the Olympic Torch.

“Muhammad Ali,” Johnston said. “I took the great Muhammad Ali around the stadium. We were next to one another backstage as Gladys Knight sang ‘Georgia on My Mind.’ No one knew he was there so we couldn’t move around much. It was a complete surprise to everyone. Very emotional.”

After the Olympics, Centennial Olympic Park became Turner Field and officially opened to baseball activities on March 29, 1997. Johnston met and worked the same section with two close friends over his tenure: Larry Colwell, 42, and Skip McCoy, 56. Colwell, who is also an usher, has been like family to Johnston.

“He’s like a father figure,” Colwell said. “Ask anyone here, they all know who he is. I mean he is the go-to man.”

This year officially marks the final year that “Braves Country” will call Turner Field its centerpiece of success with 10 straight Division Titles won at the ballpark. The Braves will relocate to SunTrust Park in Cobb County in 2017.

A bid introduced by Georgia State University would reassemble the stadium into a football and baseball field for the school. In 2013, Mayor Kasim Reed originally planned to tear down Turner Field and replace it with better housing and retail opportunities. However, Georgia State won their bid for an expansion of their facilities.

The three friends have been discussing their opportunities after Turner Field remodels the facility for Georgia State University. While Johnston’s plans are secure, Colwell and McCoy are weighing their options.

“I thought of being a part of the [Georgia State] Panther’s new stadium,” McCoy said. “I know this area so well so I imagine I can jump right in after they remodel it. I’ll figure it out.”

The Atlanta Braves are set to move to the new $392 million SunTrust Park during the 2017 season near what John Schuerholz, Braves President, labels the “geographic center of the Braves’ fan base.”  The location is set in the Cumberland area of Cobb County just northwest of Atlanta. Colwell plans on moving towards the area and working as an usher at the new stadium.

“I have family out that way,” Colwell said. “I don’t want to leave the city but it would be better for my kids too. They were born Braves fans and that part of us ain’t going anywhere.”

The Braves relocation came as a surprise to many of their fans and the citizens of Atlanta. When Atlanta refused to pay millions of dollars to make improvements or reconstruct a new stadium, the Braves organization took it up with Cobb County and received the money they needed. Cobb County commissioners labeled the area around Turner Field as ‘boring’ with ‘nothing to do’ and offered Cobb County as a much more attractive area to run the baseball team.

Turner Field is relatively young for a stadium at 20 years. Boston’s Fenway Park has been operating since Sept. 25, 1911. Chicago’s Wrigley Field has been in operation since April 23, 1914. In fact, Turner Field could stand for another 30 years before renovations are necessary. However, the Braves owners presented Atlanta with a tough decision.

“The city was presented with a choice, and that choice was encumbering between $150 million and $250 million in debt and not having money to do anything else,” Mayor Kasim Reed said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution last November.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t want the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta,” Reed said. “We’re not going to put the city on its back financially.”

The city of Atlanta is already constructing a new $1.5 billion dollar stadium for the Atlanta Falcons and their newly acquired Major League Soccer Team, Atlanta United FC. The Mercedes-Benz Superdome is set to complete construction in 2017, the same year the Braves plan on opening SunTrust Park.

Johnston was shocked with the decision but he said he believes it is a calling for him to retire and assist his wife.

“The Braves are my life, but Shirley is my world,” Johnston said. “It will be an emotional farewell season, that’s for sure, but at least I’ll have my wife to come home to every night.”

When it’s all said and done, Herman hopes to fully enjoy this farewell season and see the Braves make the playoffs for his wife and the fans of the city.

“Atlanta deserves to go out on a wild ride,” Johnston said. “My wife and I would love to see them do something better than last year. Whatever happens, I’ll enjoy the whole thing.”

The Braves have been struggling to perform over the last two seasons after gutting and rebuilding the team at the conclusion of the 2014 season. Many of the offseason transactions implicate that Johnston’s wish of a great farewell season should come true.

Shirley Johnston hopes to spend most of the farewell season sitting in Herman’s section, enjoying the game alongside her husband.

“If this is going to be it after 20 years in the same home at the same job, then I want to spend all my moments there with my husband,” Shirley Johnston said.

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important cognitive and mental functions. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion and mood swings. There is no cure for the disease, but treatment options are available.

Visit www.alz.org/Georgia to learn the warning signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Call 1-800-272-3900 or email lucretia.smith@alz.org  for a 24 hour helpline in assisting with Alzheimer’s disease.

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