Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

Unforgettable Hjalma Johnson

Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

Unforgettable Hjalma Johnson

Article excerpt

Attorney, engineer, rancher, community banker, and natural-born communicator, this Floridian is ready to be the next ABA president

At times Janice Tabb has thought of putting up one of those red velvet ropes that museums use to keep people back from an exhibit. That's because when the front door to East Coast Bank Corp. is open, people tend to look in and stare. The foyer of the four-room suite looks more like a museum than the headquarters of a banking company.

The office resides in the middle of an unassuming row of one-story retail stores and professional offices off Highway 301, in Dade City, Fla., northeast of Tampa. A sign on the door identifies the company and says, "Hjalma Johnson, Chairman." It might well say, "...and Curator."

Janice Tabb, who is Johnson's long-time assistant and a vice-president of the company, can identify many of the photos and artifacts on display around the office, but for the full tour, only Hjalma will do.

How much time do you have?

Hjalma (the name is pronounced with a "Y" and rhymes with comma) isn't around much these days, as he begins his term as the 114th president of the American Bankers Association (the second from Florida--Donald Senterfitt being the first in 1985-86). But if he's in, the irrepressible and loquacious Johnson will regale you with an astounding repertoire of tales, events travels, and meetings, prompted by the hundreds of photos, plaques, books, and other mementos and treasured gifts proffered by Presidents, colleagues, and grandchildren.

A sampling: On three walls in the foyer are photos of Johnson with every President since Richard Nixon except Jimmy Carter. (The Carter Administration is nonetheless represented by a photo of Hjalma's mother and brother, Winston, posing with Rosalynn Carter.) Almost all the photos are signed, and several have personal notes.

Other "exhibits" include a large section devoted to photos from Johnson's trip to Antarctica with his wife, Laura, and numerous "Gator" mementos relating to his passionate support of his alma mater, the University of Florida.

We're just scratching the surface here.

The scope of this collection is unusual, but it shows a man who is devoted to family, friends, and associates, and who has a remarkable sense of the convergence of people and events. "This is my life," he says proudly of the numerous mementos.

Anyone who has met him knows that Hjalma Johnson is an outgoing, high-energy achiever. At the same time, he is not an easy man to peg. While clearly proud of his life, his accomplishments, and his family, for example, he is also quick to thank all those who have helped him along the way. And although Johnson is affable and hospitable, he is also persistent and tenacious when he sets his mind to a certain course of action. Two situations demonstrate the latter qualities.

The first occurred 24 years ago when Johnson briefly brought New York City into technical default because he insisted his bank be paid--by a check handed to him personally--for a large New York City bond that had come due just as the city was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. (See "I want the check," p. 38.)

And then there was the 1985 ABA Spring Meeting at which Johnson objected strenuously to an attempt to bypass regional interstate banking in favor of full nationwide banking as part of a broad reform package. Johnson wasn't the only one who preferred the regional compact approach, but it was he who spoke up most forcefully in what was a tense situation.

Looking back on that meeting, Johnson says that "the furthest thing from my mind was that I'd ever be ABA president." His bold stance may have angered some at the time, but arguably it averted a huge industry rift.

About that name

A Florida newspaper once observed that a kid with a name like Hjalma would grow up either very introverted or very extroverted. …

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