Rappahannock County lost a touch of class and a dash of elegance on March 17 when Johnny Mann died.
Tall and courtly, with sweet Southern charm and impeccable Southern manners, John E. Mann Sr. had a knack for putting people at ease and making them all feel equally welcome and valued. Through the years, whether he was giving a shave and a haircut at Madison’s Barber Shop in Warrenton, conducting business as the Warrenton Town Council’s first African-American member, catering parties with his mother Alice, serving drinks at horse country socials or escorting customers around the Rappahannock Food Pantry, where he was the senior and premiere volunteer, he had a smile for everyone.
“John never knew a stranger,” affirmed Darcy Canton, director of the Rappahannock Senior Center, where Mann was a champion card player and the irrepressible social leader in the last year of his life. “He was fun, kind-hearted and even as he slowed down towards the end, he was always more concerned about everyone else than he was about himself.”
Born Jan. 25, 1930, in Midland, John Mann grew up in Fauquier County amid the cruelties of segregation. An example: As a boy in elementary school, he walked nine miles to class and back while young white students shouted racial slurs from the windows of school buses as they rode by. Rather than being embittered by injustice, however, he made the best of things, a pattern he would follow throughout his life. John didn’t get angry. Instead, he responded with self-discipline, a strong work ethic and a determination to succeed.
Johnny was just 14 when he began doing a little hair-cutting, a little shoe-shining and a little bellhopping at Butler’s Barber Shop in the Warren Green Hotel. Mindful of his limitations, the novice barber stuck with flattops until he moved on to Madison’s Barber Shop on Warrenton’s Main Street where he learned tonsorial artistry from Charlie Madison.
John stayed at Madison’s for 29 years, working after hours as a caterer and bartender, and taking a three-year leave from the barber’s chair to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Assigned to the 141st General Hospital in Sasebo, Japan, John was haunted for the rest of his life by the terrible injuries he saw there. But he was also forever awed and inspired by the courage of the wounded and the dedication of the healers. He shared that dedication, dispensing medicine six days a week for two years. And when the helicopters were incoming, John voluntarily gave up that seventh day of rest to stay on the job.
He worked for the federal government in the Warrenton Training Center’s maintenance department for another 27 years. Between that, his years at the barbershop, hundreds of evenings spent tending bar at social gatherings and his involvement in the Fauquier County community, John Mann was one of Warrenton’s most familiar faces. The high profile led to his appointment to the Warrenton Town Council, an action that came on the heels of an American Civil Liberty Union’s lawsuit seeking black representation on the governing body for a town with a 20 percent black population. For 14 years, he easily won reelection. Although John acknowledged that he broke important ground on the council, he always insisted that race never figured into any of his decisions.
In “retirement,” he put his outstanding people skills to great use as a volunteer for the Rappahannock Food Pantry, there at the beginning when the doors opened in June, 2009. Handpicked by Kathy Eggers, Pantry Board member, to be the official greeter, John quickly became the Face of the Pantry.
“He was the most awesome volunteer,” said Mimi Forbes, Pantry director. “Volunteers generally do half a day once a week. But John came every day we were open – and stayed the whole day. He dismantled boxes, helped the clients out to their cars, stocked and arranged shelves. No one keeps the cans as straight as John did! He seemed to have boundless energy – you couldn’t believe he was almost 80 years old.”
Last year, 10 days after a knee replacement, John made what was to be his last visit to the pantry, stopping by to check in with the customers and his fellow volunteers. Spry as ever, he hopped onto the chest freezer, and just as spryly, he hopped back down to rearrange canned carrots that had become intermingled with cans of beans.
“He loved to work, and his favorite place to work was the Pantry,” noted John’s widow, Doris, his partner of 16 years. “He’d say, ‘You know, they’re awfully busy. I’d better go up to see if they need help,’ and he’d be gone.”
In the final years of his life, John battled the inroads of Alzheimer ’s disease and lung cancer, and he did it the same way he faced every challenge, with quiet acceptance, making the best of what he had, pretending that everything was fine, and never losing that bright smile.
“For John, the worst thing about Alzheimer’s was having to put his chainsaw and his tools away and having to give up his work at the Food Pantry,” his widow recalled.
“It was a sad day for volunteers and clients alike when he could no longer help us,” Mimi Forbes added.
John spent his last weeks in the Five Forks home he loved, Doris at his side, his children in and out, listening to his favorite jazz music in front of the big picture window that looked out on the pond with a backdrop of the Blue Ridge foothills. His effervescent spirit was strong until the end. “Even after he couldn’t talk, his knee was bouncing to the beat,” Doris recalled.
Clearly, Johnny Mann never stopped making the best of things.
As word of John Mann’s death spread, several friends and fellow volunteers dropped off donations at the Food Pantry in his memory. The Mann family hadn’t suggested a memorial, but on learning of this spontaneous recognition of what was important to Johnny, they wholeheartedly supported the generosity to his favorite cause. For those wanting to make a contribution in John Mann’s honor, contact Mimi Forbes at 540-675-1177.