This former Bay St. Louis councilman shines as a local chef and a member of the legendary St. Rose de Lima choir. However, behind the scenes, he's quietly working for a better community - all with a song in his heart.
- story by Pat Saik, photos courtesy Charles Johnson and Ellis Anderson
“Mary J. Saucier, my mama, raised me and my five brothers and three sisters.”
Charles lived with his mother until he was 33. In 1982 he built his own home on Keller Street, where he has lived ever since. His large shaded yard and front porch are flourishing with plants Charles has nurtured over the years. He felt quite gratified when the local garden club awarded him “Garden of the Month.”
Charles is proud of his son, Marcus Johnson, a graduate of St. Stanislaus and Pearl River Community College, whom he raised as a single parent. A proud parent, yes, but also an over-the-moon grandfather. His grandson, Liam, turned a year old this July.
“Mardi Gras and Christmas are my favorite holidays. I start getting things set up in October so I can be ready when it is time to light up the yard. It is quite a scene,” he says proudly. “I love to decorate.”
Charles is a member of the popular, well-respected gospel choir at St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church, and lends his voice every Sunday in praising the Lord. The gospel choir sings the first four Sundays of every month.
Charles is pleased that the St. Rose congregation is integrated. “To me, when I look out at the congregation, it looks like heaven.”
Charles may be best known around town for his beautiful voice. “He has the voice of an angel,” says artist Kat Fitzpatrick, a gifted singer herself, who has sung alongside Charles in the choir at St. Rose.
Grieving families often ask Charles to sing at the funeral of a loved one. “People tell me that my singing helps console them.”
“I started singing in the high school choir when I was 12 years old,” Charles recalls. “I was encouraged by my teacher, Miss Juanita Thomas.
Has he ever considered singing genres other than gospel? “I’ve been asked to sing in blues bands, but I only want to sing for the Lord.”
Prima Luke, who was ruler of the kitchen at the popular Dock of the Bay from the mid-‘80s through 2005, recalls that Charles often got on stage to sing with Jerry Fisher and his band on Saturday night.
Reminded of his singing at “The Dock,” Charles pauses to think. “That’s right. I loved to hang out at the Dock on weekends. Jerry would always call me up to sing ‘I Got Dreams to Remember.’” Charles pauses. “I had forgotten about that until we started talking.”
The gift of song is not Charles’ only talent.
“I love people,” Charles says.
One way Charles shows his love for others is by cooking for them.
“I love to see people eat,” he explains.
After Hurricane Katrina he took joy in walking up and down the damaged neighborhoods dishing out his homemade gumbo to anyone who was hungry.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Charles knows his way around a kitchen. As a youngster, he spent many hours watching his own mother cook.
“It was my job to cleanup when the cooking was done.” Smiling, he added, “My mama could tear a kitchen up!”
Every Christmas, Charles honors his mother, who died in 1996, by recreating the Christmas dinner that she would prepare for the family. “Shrimp dressing, gumbo and homemade fruitcake are a few of the dishes Mama always made at Christmas.”
On Christmas Eve, Charles hosts an open house. Guests enjoy his home-cooked offerings of gumbo, potato salad and baked ham.
Charles often makes smothered chicken and gravy, field peas, okra, squash, shrimp and cornbread dressing throughout the year for his more elderly friends, like Miss Lillian Rodgers in Pearlington and Mrs. Orelia Richardson in Waveland, who is 103 years of age.
He has contributed time and talent to the Hancock County Senior Volunteer Program, driving folks to doctor appointments or other places they may need to go, as well as cooking meals large enough to eat one day and put some food away in the freezer for another day.
Before Hurricane Katrina, every Monday he made red beans and rice for Da Beach House, a popular place at the foot of Washington Street to get a coffee and catch up on local goings-on.
In competition with some of the best cooks on the coast, in 1993 Charles took first place in the Third Annual Red Beans and Rice Cook-Off at the Bay-Waveland Yacht Club.
Charles is not only a stand-out when it comes to singing and cooking, but also he is a friend of the elderly. He has volunteered for years at the senior citizens center, well before the new building that now stands on St. Francis Street.
As a testament to his friendships he has made with seniors over the years, Charles’ home is decorated with canvas after canvas painted by his friends, from sailing ships to a dignified still life. Truly, his home is like an art gallery showcasing the varied works of talented senior artists.
Over the years, Charles has built an impressive list of contributions to the community.
For example, when the Krewe of Merry Makers — an organization founded by a group of people including Alvena Nichols — disbanded in the late 1970s, Charles “wanted to bring Mardi Gras back to Bay St. Louis.” He succeeded five years later. In 1981, Charles and a group of friends founded The Krewe of Real People. He was King of the Real People in 1989.
Charles also served as an elected official; he served on the Bay St. Louis City Council from 1985 to 1989. At that time, Vic Frankowich served as Mayor; Eddie Farve held the City Clerk position.
“I’ve always liked helping people. That’s what I wanted to do as a public servant.”
While no longer an elected official, Charles stays involved in the community by serving on the board of various organizations. He recently retired from the board governing the Head Start program.
He has also served as an active member of the South Mississippi Planning and Development organization; on the loan committee, he made lending decisions for projects and businesses in the area. He is presently active in the Hancock County Democratic Committee.
Charles is the kind of guy who easily makes friends. He tells the story of meeting someone from Portland, Oregon, who had come to Bay St. Louis by boat and was getting a haircut. He and his traveling companions became such good friends that Charles was invited to Portland to attend the wedding of one of his new friends, and participate as a guest soloist.
As a wedding present, Charles brought with him on the plane all the ingredients he needed to make a gumbo.
A gastronomic winner, the wedding guests went “slap crazy” as Charles tells it. It is no surprise that Charles has friends from coast to coast. Every year at Thanksgiving, he visits good friends in Charleston, South Carolina and prepares the Thanksgiving meal.
“We’re like family,”
Charles is committed, however, to the place where he grew up.
“Bay St. Louis is my love. Living here, I don’t see color. I see people.”