By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE — Deacon Ernest Johnson had the best seat in the house.
Deacon Johnson not only served for almost 20 years as Archbishop Emeritus Oscar H. Lipscomb’s personal driver, but also his companion and confidant. The duo traveled up to 30,000 miles a year, went through five different cars and “ate at Waffle Houses in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana,” according to Deacon Johnson.
By traveling the highways and backgrounds in the archdiocese and beyond, Deacon Johnson learned plenty about the first Archbishop of Mobile, who died July 15 at the age of 88.
But most importantly, Deacon Johnson said “He was dedicated to God and he was a bishop that cared for the people.”
Deacon Johnson witnessed Archbishop Lipscomb’s faith on display during a harrowing trek in New Orleans.
According to Deacon Johnson, their car suddenly stopped running in the middle of rush hour traffic. “I had to go across three lanes at about 5 p.m. to get to the side of the road with no power.”
Once the team made it safely to the side of the road, Deacon Johnson began calling for assistance. And Archbishop Lipscomb called on God.
“He got out his breviary and prayed evening prayer,” Deacon Johnson said. “There were also many times when he would pray the Rosary when we were traveling.”
Deacon Johnson also saw Archbishop Lipscomb’s dedication to the people, especially in the final years.
While Archbishop Lipscomb’s health was deteriorating, Deacon Johnson said Archbishop Lipscomb did everything possible to attend every event possible.
“There were times when he did things for people that they didn’t know the pain he was in in order to come and be at a funeral or wedding,” Deacon Johnson said.
Deacon Johnson also got a close look at the lighter side of Archbishop Lipscomb.
Did you know that Archbishop Lipscomb needed a particular seat at the Waffle House? Not many did. But Deacon Johnson did and he also knew why.
“He loved Waffle House and whenever we stopped at Waffle House we had to sit with him facing the cook,” Deacon Johnson fondly recalled. “He said on more than one occasion that if he had not been a priest, he would have wanted to have been a short-order cook.
“Why? I don’t know. But he was fascinated with it and he watched the cook.”
Of course, Deacon Johnson also got to see how much Archbishop Lipscomb loved McGill-Toolen Catholic High School football as well.
“He liked to come for the team and maybe it was just on a Tuesday afternoon when the team was practicing, just for five minutes. When one of the players saw us coming up, one would scream ‘It’s the Archbishop.’ He was like a rock star and they’d all flock over. He liked being with the kids more than the attention they were giving him.’
Like any position though, there were some negatives for Deacon Johnson.
Sometimes Archbishop Lipscomb spent the car rides reading, preparing for a meeting, dictating or sleeping. That meant silence.
“Next time you go to Montgomery from Mobile (or vice versa), see how it goes driving with no radio or anything,” Deacon Johnson joked. “You’re just driving and there was no interaction.
“… But we had some fun times.”
Archbishop Lipscomb and Deacon Johnson shared a lot of smiles throughout their years together. The final one came in late June, a few weeks before Archbishop Lipscomb died.
Deacon Johnson visited Archbishop Lipscomb at the Little Sisters of the Poor Sacred Heart Residence and it was evident the time was near.
“I told him that we went on a lot of trips together, but I can’t go on this one with you.
“He was not able to communicate verbally, but when I told him that, he smiled.”
By ROB HERBST