Roller-skating retirees tout AARP

By Tammy Keith Originally Published April 21, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 19, 2013 at 10:40 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Ruby and Joe Johnson are officers for Conway’s AARP chapter. Both are the first African-Americans in their respective offices — her as vice president, him as chaplain — in the history of the chapter.

Ruby Johnson, 64, makes it clear that even though she and her husband, Joe, 67, are retired, “we aren’t rocking-chair grandparents.”

It’s a lucky person who finds them at their home in Conway. With church commitments, activities as officers with Conway’s AARP chapter, Ruby’s volunteering and, oh, yes, their roller skating, “we stay on the go,” she said.

The couple, lifelong Conway residents, are the first African-American officers in their respective positions in the local AARP chapter, Ruby said.

She became vice president in January for the Conway chapter and also serves as sunshine chairwoman and compiles the chapter scrapbook. Joe is the chapter chaplain.

Joe retired from Pepsi in 2009 after 40 years, and Ruby retired in 2008 as a preschool teacher at First United Methodist Church. Working with children was one of her joys in life.

“Love it, love it,” she said.

Ruby said her late mother was her “best, best, best bud,” and they did everything together.

When her mother died in 2005, Ruby and Joe saw a blurb in the paper about the Conway AARP chapter and gave it a try.

Ruby said it surprised her that so few African-Americans were in the Conway AARP chapter, but she grew close to the other officers and immediately felt welcome.

Joe was asked to bless their meals so often that he took that position

three years ago.

“It’s ironic — I was the first black hired at Pepsi in Conway and the first black to be hired at the skating rink,” he said.

He was “turning 20,” and Ruby was 17 when they married in 1966.

He started working in 1969 at a Pepsi warehouse in Conway loading and unloading trucks. When it closed in 1985, he went to work for the company in Little Rock.

“I ended up being operations manager and night supervisor,” he said. “I hired blacks and whites.”

“I loved my job. I take pride in my job. I don’t care what I’m doing; I love what I do.”

Ruby said that once when Joe was sick, the doctor called to check on him. She told the doctor Joe had gone to work, which the doctor had forbid him to do, and the physician told her to get Joe home, somehow, some way.

She drove to Little Rock, marched into Joe’s supervisor’s office and insisted that Joe leave.

In addition to working at Pepsi, Joe spent 16 years as a roller-skating instructor.

Joe, who was about 27 at the time, said a friend invited him to the Conway Roller Rink, but Joe couldn’t skate.

He went, but his buddies had fun at his expense.

“They’d take you out in the middle of the floor and leave you, so I mastered it,” he said.

The business manager

noticed Joe’s skating skills, so he offered Joe a job as a part-time skating instructor. He served as the rink’s disc jockey, too.

Ruby said adults in Conway come up to Joe all the time and say, “Oh, you taught me to skate!”

“They called me Roller Rink King,” Joe said, his lean 6-foot-4-inch frame relaxing in a chair at the couple’s kitchen table.

Those weren’t just the good old days; the couple still love to skate.

“We have our own roller skates,” Ruby said.

“We slow-dance skate,” Ruby said of her and her husband. “We backward-skate together.”

About every three months, the couple and their two daughters, Lolita Johnson of Conway and Samantha Salaam of Little Rock, go skating.

Sometimes younger people stop to stare at them, she said.

Ruby said one of her missions in AARP is to recruit more members and younger members. Anyone 50 or older can join.

“We love it; we enjoy it. We put our whole heart in it,” she said.

A deacon and Sunday School teacher at Greater Fellowship Christian Church in Conway, Joe preaches the gospel of AARP every chance he gets.

He said he firmly believes that anyone who is 50 or older should be involved.

“People just don’t understand what it is,” he said. “We have outings. Not only that, but it’s the benefits you get from AARP,” he said, including discounts, “a whole line of stuff.”

Ruby said the AARP group made a trip to the Capitol in Little Rock in support of the Affordable Care Act.

“We just want people less fortunate than us to benefit in society,” Joe said.

As vice president, Ruby is in charge of getting speakers for the AARP chapter meetings.

“I try to get a speaker that everyone will enjoy something,” she said.

Her goal is to have speakers share information on topics important to senior citizens, from exercises to Medicare issues.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Joe said, getting so excited at one point that he pounded the kitchen table.

Conway AARP President Ron Ross said the couple “contribute a lot.”

“I’m proud of them,” Ross said. “They attend every meeting, that I remember, and every day of service that we have.”

Ruby has given back to the Conway community for years. She volunteered for months at the Conway Sports Center when it was a shelter for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

She’s a hospice volunteer, and since 2006, she’s volunteered Friday afternoons at the Conway Regional Women’s Center, checking in patients there for mammograms.

Both are members of their church choir.

After working all their lives, the Johnsons are finally able to do things together, which Ruby said is the best part of being retired.

“It’s such a blessing to be retired,” she said. “When he was working, we could never do anything together.”

While he worked two jobs, he spent two years building their home, even wiring it for electricity.

“It’s nothing I went to school for,” he said. “Only the Lord taught me that.”

Joe has a talent for repairing vehicles, too, and spends hours tinkering in his garage.

He puts on a stack of his albums and works, often with their 13-year-old dog, Kia, beside him.

Joe and Ruby also baby-sit their granddaughter, Nia, as often as they can.

Family photos hang on the walls and the refrigerator door.

Ruby shows a laminated newspaper article written in 1977 about Joe and his skating, and it includes a photo of him with their then 5-year-old son, Joe Johnson Jr.

Joe said that to this day, he could teach anybody to skate.

“It’s all about balancing,” he said.

Just like the schedule of two busy retirees.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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