George F. Johnson,
an extraordinary paragon
Faith is not a word we hear often in today’s society outside of religious prayer but at one time in Binghamton there was a man who called on all to have complete confidence and trust in others. His name was George F. Johnson and his statue with his quote “Have faith in people” proudly stands at Recreation Park in Binghamton.
This area continues to evolve and time moves on and with the passage of time and tradition many may not know or have forgotten how much this man gave to our area. They may see the Arches in Johnson City and Endicott with the words “Home of the Square Deal” but not know why it was constructed or what it means. In short George gave us a sense of hope, a sense of security and purpose, a sense of family and belonging, a self of selflessness.
He was a man who had humble beginnings as a shoe factory supervisor at Lester Brothers and later became the owner and Chairman of the Board of Endicott Johnson Shoe Factory, one of the largest shoe companies in our country. The phrase “Square Deal” refers to the labor policies Johnson instituted but many may argue it had a further reaching arm to the policies governing humanity for it promised that as long as the employees were part of the EJ “family” they would be treated fairly and afforded privileges unknown for the time period including medical and hospital services and he signed this promise “Your friend, George F. Johnson.”
Johnson’s progressive ideas on welfare capitalism included such revolutionary concepts as a 40 hour work week which he instituted in 1916 but did not become an American standard with other companies until 1940. EJs was also one of the first companies in America to institute profit sharing for its employees and when he found his employees were being victimized by unrealistically high rents he had homes constructed and sold to his employees at such a low cost that he intentionally took the financial hit of a $1000 each.
Johnson was quoted as saying “There can be no security no guarantee of prosperity except through homes owned by the plain citizens.”
And to complete his neighborhoods he constructed swimming pools such as the JC Pool and parks like Recreation Park and Enjoy and 6 carousels that were to forever remain free to the general public by order of his will. His treatment of workers was so great that 1/3 of the Triple Cities population or 38,000 people were employed at one time at Endicott Johnson and when immigrants would come off the boat to Ellis Island, legend has it that when asked if they had jobs they would proudly ask the INS official “Which way EJ?”.
And his belief in helping mankind extended beyond his family of workers for he was dedicated to our troops that he fondly called “his boys” and manufactured the boots for our WWII soldiers and erected the American Legion that once stood proudly on Main St by the JC UHS. He also built homes for veterans and was a leader in War Bond drives.
He loved everything about this area and its people. He built hospitals including the EJ Hospital on Clinton St which is now a senior center, held extravagant firework displays for everyone at Enjoy and Sunday afternoon concerts at the Binghamton Court House, He even became the owner of the Binghamton Triplets Ball Club. And this area loved him as well. So much so that the town of Lestershire was renamed Johnson City in honor of him. November 28, 1948 was one of the darkest days for this area for it marked the day George F Johnson died. His funeral was attended by thousands of mourners and is said to be one of the largest displays of emotional outpouring in United States history far outnumbering funerals for most Presidents and actors. He is buried at Riverhurst Cemetery in Endicott and his grave is marked by a simple stone which is becoming of this great man for everything he did was not for recognition of himself but for the betterment of the people he loved. It was George F. Johnson who made the Triple Cities a carbon copy of the Norman Rockwell paintings where immigrant pre-war and post were given access to the American dream – the heart of Americana spirit and drive. A true hero, a man dedicated to God, Country and the sanctity of the human spirit.