Former Whitley Circuit Judge and U.S. District Magistrate Jennings Bryan “JB” Johnson Jr., 84, is being remembered as a well-respected lawyer, judge and person following his passing Monday evening.
Johnson, 84, died at Baptist Health Lexington.
Whitley County Attorney Bob Hammons, who was a law partner of Johnson’s for a few years, described him as a very stately gentleman, who always treated people extremely fairly.
“He was an honorable gentleman. He will be sadly missed by the people of Whitley County and particularly by the members of the Whitley County Bar,” Hammons said. “He was one of the most polite and mannerly people that I have ever been around. He was extremely fair.”
Johnson served as Whitley Circuit Judge from 1973 – 1984, and later as a full-time federal magistrate for several years before retiring in 2006.
Hammons, who had dinner with Johnson less than two months ago, noted that Johnson was circuit judge when he started practicing law in 1980, and he learned a lot from him.
Johnson spent his formative years in Williamsburg but graduated Harlan High School. He later graduated from the University of Kentucky and then obtained a Juris Doctor degree from its College of Law in 1961. He was a member of Phi Kappa Tau and Phi Delta Phi. As an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, he was an intramural wrestler for two years, in which he was the champion in his weight division one year and finished as runner-up a second year.
After graduating from law school, he entered the United States Air Force as an Assistant Staff Judge Advocate General (JAG) with the rank of first lieutenant, and was promoted to the rank of captain, which he held for two years before he was honorably discharged in November of 1964. He then returned home to Williamsburg and began practicing law with his father, then a retired Commonwealth Attorney and two-term Circuit Judge. The father and son later formed a law partnership with G.G. Teague, Jr., and W.M. Cox, Jr. until J.B. Jr. was elected to fill the unexpired term of Circuit Judge Pleas Jones, who had become a member of the Supreme Court of Kentucky.
Johnson was re-elected, without opposition, to a new eight-year term commencing in January of 1976. His total service as circuit judge for Whitley and McCreary Counties was slightly over ten years, November of 1974 to the end of 1984. He then rejoined his former law firm, followed by time as a sole practitioner.
During that period he also was selected as the first full-time Magistrate Judge based in London, Kentucky, with primary jurisdiction over twenty-six eastern Kentucky counties. He held this position until retirement on his 70th birthday August 31, 2006.
For the next five years, Johnson taught constitutional law, criminal procedure, civil procedure, criminal law, and business law at both The University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg and Somerset Community College, London campus. In all, his practice of law exceeded 50 years.
During his half century of law practice, he was elected to serve on the Board of Governors of the Kentucky Bar Association for five consecutive years. He also served as Chairman of the Kentucky Circuit Judges Education Committee, and as a Faculty Advisor to the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada-Reno. Further, he served on two separate Kentucky Bar Association Committees which were responsible for revising both the Kentucky civil and criminal rules of procedure.
Early in his career he served as Williamsburg City Attorney, and was an initial member of the Kentucky Association of Trial Attorneys (KATA), a member of the American Judicature Society, and an Assistant Commonwealth Attorney. He was a Life Member of the Kentucky Bar Association, a member of the American Bar Association, a Life Member of the Kentucky Historical Society, and a member of the Whitley County Historical & Genealogical Society. He was a long-time director of the Williamsburg branch of Farmers National Bank (Now Community Trust Bank), also serving as its corporate board secretary and attorney. He was a certified mediator and arbitrator. At his retirement in 2006, his colleagues honored him as a Life Fellow of the Kentucky Bar Foundation.
Johnson was an avid outdoorsman, who enjoyed hunting, fishing, golfing whitewater rafting, and morel mushroom hunting. He routinely fed birds and enjoyed watching them and animals commune with nature. He also loved University of Kentucky athletics and he was a life member of the University of Kentucky Alumni Association. He enjoyed traveling, having visited in all fifty states and several foreign countries. Most of all, he loved his home state of Kentucky.
Whitley Circuit Court Clerk Gary Barton noted that he had known Johnson since he was eight or 10 years old, and grew up next door to him.
“He’s been very close to my family for many, many years. As a person and later on as an attorney and a judge also,” Barton said. “He was one of those people if you were around him you just loved being with him. He was a great storyteller. He was just a fun person to be with. He was a well-respected attorney and then later on as a judge. He was just a very fine person.”
Johnson is survived by his wife, Rebecca L. Douglas Johnson, the daughter of Willard and Maymie Douglas of Williamsburg, two daughters, Courtney Scheben (William Lee) of Union, Kentucky, Kendall Woltenberg (Rick) of Austin, Texas, son, Nathan Johnson of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a step-daughter, April Gibson (Matt) of Andersonville, Tennessee, his sister, Julia Blondell (David) of Lexington, Kentucky, his brother, Dr. J. Wesley Johnson (Phyllis) of Ashland, Kentucky, and by six grandchildren, Sydney Allen Cooney (Seun), Summer Elizabeth Scheben, Zachary Logan Gibson (Annabelle), Tristan Blaine Gibson, Ryder Jennings Woltenberg , and Skylar Catherine Woltenberg.
Pursuant to the wishes of the decedent, there will be no public visitation or funeral. He will be laid to rest in the Highland Cemetery in Williamsburg after a family service there.
Croley Funeral Home is in charge of funeral arrangements.