ROEBUCK, Ala. (WIAT) — On a hot afternoon in early May, Donna Johnson was getting the job done right.
As guests walked in and out around her, Johnson didn’t lose her focus. She never really did. The 84-year-old woman, her uniform spotless and her make-up flawless, pushed and pulled on a sweeper, meticulously ensuring the rugs at the entrance of the Roebuck Chick-fil-A were clean. When she was finished, she moved on to what she loved best — talking to people.
Just a month later, Johnson– a mother, grandmother, and unforgettable Chick-fil-A hostess– died at her home. Since her death May 27, dozens of friends, family, and Chick-fil-A customers have paid tribute to Johnson, remembering her as a loving, hard-working Southern woman who they said was “forever young.”
Donna Johnson was born in Birmingham on May 16, 1938, to Anita Collet and Edward Dawson. After graduating from Tarrant High School, she quickly married and became a mother, a role she’d cherish for the rest of her life.
Johnson’s son, Finlay, said she would do anything she could for her children. Once, he said, when his brother had a milestone birthday in Costa Rica, his mother –who’d never left the country — flew down to see him, bringing an entire birthday cake “through customs and all.” The move wasn’t out of character for her, Finlay said.
After her kids were old enough not to require constant supervision, Johnson set out to find a job outside the mothering she’d been committed to for years. In the early 1970s, she worked part-time at the Birmingham Loveman’s and at a fitness center in Center Point. Later, when her kids were old enough to drive, she was ready to take on even more.
“She was bored with being at home,” Finlay said.
So around 1981, Donna Johnson began working more regularly at the Roebuck Shoney’s.
“She loved it,” Finlay said. “That’s because her entire life, she’s always loved people. She loved to be around people. She loved to wait on people.”
Johnson worked at that Shoney’s for around a decade, up until the day the location closed its doors.
Asked how his mother felt about the closure, Finlay didn’t skip a beat.
“I’ll tell you how she felt — she moved directly to the Shoney’s at the Eastwood Mall,” he said.
Johnson would outlive that location, as well as Eastwood Mall itself, which closed in 2006. She then moved on to the Shoney’s in Gardendale, the last to remain in the Birmingham area. That’s where Johnson, who’d divorced her first husband years earlier, met her second husband. The two then moved to Florida.
Johnson didn’t work during her second marriage, but she would eventually get divorced once more. After that split, she got a job near her home at a Chick-fil-A near Palm Coast, Florida.
As Johnson got older, her family encouraged her to move back, and they renovated the home Finlay had grown up in. Johnson soon headed back in Alabama.
Once she’d settled in, Johnson went to the Trussville Chick-fil-A, a resume and letter from her former boss in hand. Their location, the staff said, already had a hostess. Donna had struck out. But as always, she pushed on. Around 2018, she went to the Roebuck Chick-Fil-A and talked to its management. The rest is history.
“If you were to ask her what she thought about she did, she thought she owned the place,” her son said. “It was her Chick-fil-A. She was going to make certain that everybody that came in there enjoyed their food and got good service.”
Recently, Donna Johnson experienced some health issues that had required her to wear a heart monitor: an effort to help diagnose potential heart problems. The day she died, she was scheduled to return the monitor and await results. The monitor was already in her purse.
Finlay couldn’t get in touch with his mother that day, so he went to check on her. She had died near the doorway of her home, apparently on her way out.
“I’m assuming it must have been her heart,” Finlay said. “But we don’t know.”
After her passing, Chick-fil-A posted a tribute to Donna Johnson.
“She will truly be missed by her Chick-fil-A Family and everyone who knew her,” the franchise location posted on social media.
Under the post, dozens of customers and friends posted their condolences and tributes to Johnson.
Ruth Johnson, Finlay’s wife, thanked those who’d shared kind words about her mother-in-law.
“It warms my heart to read all these comments,” she wrote. “My mother-in-law was one of a kind. She was always sweet and kind and her friends and family were always her priority. She loved her work so much she refused to quit until the very last day. She loved being independent and I thank God she could be that way until the end.”
Finlay said he’ll miss hearing from his mother each night about her day. He’ll also miss her calming influence, always upbeat, even in the face of frustration or anger.
“She was forever child-like and happy and loved,” he said, his voice breaking slightly. “I’m glad to have shared her with everyone.”