Pete Johnson- Guest Commentary

THE DESK

How often have we heard the phrase “If only these walls could talk…”? Well, if only this desk could talk…

This beautiful partners desk is solid oak and is four and one-half feet deep and five and one-half feet wide. It has 18 drawers and four pullout writing boards. It is massive and next year will be 100 years old!

Other than that, what makes this desk so special?

This desk has been at the center of more Mississippi history than any other piece of furniture I know. While it may have been used by someone prior to my family using it, there is really no way for me to know. So, I will share with you what I do know.

My grandfather, Paul B. Johnson, Sr. was the son of a poor sharecropper in Hillsboro, Mississippi and worked his way through Millsap’s law school. He practiced law in Hattiesburg and later became a Circuit Judge. In 1918 he defeated Theodore G. Bilbo for Mississippi’s 6th District U.S. Congressional seat where he served two terms and here is where the story begins.

Back then, when a member of Congress was leaving office he could purchase his furniture. My grandfather chose to purchase this desk among other personal items.

In 1939, he was elected governor after two previous tries. I have a letter he wrote my grandmother while on the campaign trail in which he said “I am fighting like a wounded tiger!” It was obviously written at the end of a long day and he was completely worn out!

It was behind this desk that he fought for and won free school books for all children in Mississippi. Back then, school books were not available for all children and the primary opposition objected to his wanting Catholic children and black children to have access to free school books. It was a bitter fight that he barely won.

From behind this desk he fought for and won an increase in pensions for the poor. An issue that was hotly debated.

From behind this desk he rallied thousands of Mississippians to war. And, saw thousands more of our brave young men volunteer for service, many never to return.

My grandfather died in office in 1943 and his oldest son, Paul B. Johnson, Jr. inherited The Desk. He used it practicing law and as Mississippi’s lieutenant governor. After being elected governor in 1963, he moved the desk into the Governor’s Mansion where it was used by my aunt Dot, Mississippi’s first lady and the mansion’s hostess, Gladys Seeley. Upon leaving office my uncle left the desk in the mansion for other governors to use.

Governor John Bell Williams is the only governor to use the desk outside of my family. Governor Williams was succeeded by Governor Bill Waller who had the mansion renovated and it was at that time that The Desk was put in storage by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

It wasn’t until years later that I received a telephone call informing me the Department still had The Desk and wanted to know what I wanted them to do with it. Without hesitation I took delivery.

I used The Desk practicing law here in Clarksdale and when I started the Delta Regional Authority for President George W. Bush. Upon leaving the Delta Regional Authority, I used it in my private business. And, when it became apparent that it was time to pass the desk on to the next generation, I was hopeful that we would be able to keep it in our family.

I called my nephew, Gerry Bufkin, who practices law in Jackson and asked him if he wanted The Desk. I told him a little bit about it and I was overjoyed when he said YES! Last week, I personally carefully disassembled, loaded and delivered The Desk to Gerry!!

Hmmm…if only this desk could talk…! And “The Cane” is even another story!

Pete Johnson is a former State of Mississippi Auditor and he was the first chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. Pete lives in Clarksdale.