My neighbor Fred speaks so kindly, his reminisces so complete and wonderful, about his time spent with John James Westbrook, Jr. in Danville, VA that I dug up the old page about said Johnny and am reproducing the text and hopefully some of the photos here for Fred. I think the one above, and the headstone, are all I can retrieve, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up.
Natural history expert and hobby archeologist, John James Westbrook, Jr., was a well-loved and respected resident of the Old West End. He was born in Danville on November 4, 1901, to Maria and John James Westbrook.
“Johnny,” as he liked to be called, loved music. His interest, even from an early age, inspired him to learn to play just about every instrument imaginable. He traveled throughout the area playing in bands and orchestras for social events. One of his earliest ensembles, with Johnny at the piano, was called The Racketeers. He and his “all-star serenaders,” as the paper called them, were regularly hired for dances at the Masonic Temple. In 1945 he had the opportunity of playing for casualties of the war who were convalescing at Fort Picket.
Johnny was also a passionate naturalist. He spent a great deal of time in nature, collecting rocks and shells, as well as butterflies and birds. These he preserved and had mounted. Hobbyists and professionals alike respected his archeological knowledge. In 1963 Howard MacCord, president of the Virginia Archeological Society, came to Danville to see “what remnants of prehistoric inhabitants and early settlers have been left in the area.” His interest was well founded. Just six years earlier, while leveling the ground for the new raceway, bulldozers unearthed a burial mound. Johnny was called to the scene where he observed skulls, bones, pottery, and other artifacts, which he identified as belonging to the Saponi Indians, a tribe of the eastern Sioux.
Johnny’s expanding collection travelled with him as he moved to different residences in the neighborhood, including the Judkins House at 161 Holbrook Avenue, where he lived in 1956. It was his wish, however, to make his collection available to the public. For a time, a formal exhibit was located at 902 Paxton Avenue. In 1950 another location was established in the basement of 944 Main Street.
In April of 1973 a former student and protégé, William Hathaway, opened a Museum of natural Science and History at the Chatham Education and Cultural Center. Johnny gladly donated his collections of shells and Indian artifacts. Later, he and Hathaway approached DCC with the intention of finding a more permanent place for the collections. The college agreed to accept them, but it took a few years of planning before a space could be dedicated for their display. In 1975, a year after Johnny’s death, the college opened a classroom for the exhibit.
In 1974 Johnny was living at 163 Sutherlin Avenue. On the 17th of March he had made plans to go butterfly hunting. When friends arrived at his home that morning, he was discovered to have died peacefully in his sleep.
The Bee remembered Johnny as “one of the more effective educators in the history of Danville, however informal and unorthodox his methods. A modest appraisal would place at thousands those Danvillians—past and present—who freely and happily acknowledge that their own lives were enriched by the contact they had in their youth with a quiet, smiling, squat man full of enthusiasm for people and all forms of life.”
and from a defunct website hosted back in the 2000s. Hopefully my publishing this will give those who remember or who need to know him will find a landing spot. maybe it will be Google-able. I’ve cobbled together the text from the Internet Archives, the WayBack Machine and I hope they’re readable. The font, the text, seems to want to stay in the OLD Windows Internet Explorer format and for that I am sorry… but as dedicated as I am to this project, I don’t have it in me to re-type the entire thing.
|John James Westbrook was an original–a genius: he was a musician, a philosopher, a naturalist, an archaeologist and, above all, a gifted teacher. In point of fact, John was a true Renaissance man.To say that “Johnny”–that’s what we all called him–had an impact on thousands of people, is not an over-statement. He was a self-taught musician; he played and taught the piano and the guitar; he wrote and arranged hundreds of songs over his lifetime. He loved Nature, he was the original environmentalist–with all the good connotations. He could not tolerate thoughtless people: people that trashed the landscape were his bane. His knowledge of nature was only exceeded by his ability to infect you with some of that knowledge and a respect for nature. He had patience beyond belief: no question was ever a “dumb” question; and if he didn’t know the answer–which was rare–he would say so and find the answer, and make sure you knew the answer. He liked all people, but he especially liked kids. He always had time for kids, in fact, he seemed to instinctively know which kids most needed his attention. If I look for a common thread to the kids that received his greatest attention, it was that they all–myself included–had a troubled home-life. I guess that it may have helped him handle the fact that he could not be with his own son, from his failed marriage: how very sad.|
|We lie to our kids when they are young, we tell them that the world is a fair place, that it is soft and fuzzy, we protect them from the, sometimes, harsh truth; in other words, we patronize them. Johnny didn’t do that, he neither lied to them nor did he beat them up with the truth; he was honest without being brutal, and kids could sense that about him, and they/we responded. I first met Johnny when I was six years old, before I had started school. It was spring and he had come to the neighborhood, and several of the older kids were going with him to the woods to collect –um, well something, I don’t remember exactly what. But I do remember I wanted to go with him. I told him that I wanted to go, and he said that we would have to get permission from my mother. Mom was a bit apprehensive, to say the least: she asked the questions that any parent who doesn’t want her child to get hurt would ask. John was use to apprehensive parents and knew the right words to use to calm their fears: I went with him. I had great fun; and I was “Hooked!”
Over the years I collected butterflies at Green Hill Cemetery, first using formaldehyde to kill the insects, and later cyanide. John gave us butterfly nets of his design and manufacture: it turns out that John made nets that worked better than a national manufacturer–Ward Scientific of New York City. He claimed that “Store bought” nets were made of a bright white netting with short handles. John had a local cabinet maker–Mr. Allen–make the handle and hoop, and he would sew, or have sewn, the nets out of bright white netting material. Then he would darken the gaudy white netting in hot boiling tea. When he finished he had the perfect net–one where the insect never knew what hit him…Johnny had a great sense of humor, or more correctly; a great sense of what was funny. His jokes were, for the most part, originals; things that were funny to kids as well as adults, but never at someone else’s expense
|He had the ability to put things into prospective for an eight-year-old: “If a farmer, who possesses great faith, just sits by his fallow fields and asks God for a miracle, i.e., to grow corn for he and his family; that farmer will sit there forever, no matter how much faith he has. On the other hand, if that same farmer first tills the soil and plants the seed, then God performs the real miracle–the germination and the growing of the seed: “God truly helps those that help themselves.”
He would tell the story of the devout believers, who, during a great drought, would gather daily at the local country church, and pray for rain. Finally, the rains came, and the people were ecstatic. And there was the church–Empty–no one had thought to return to give thanks.
|Johnny used to take the kids in the neighborhood hiking in the nearby woods where we would collect butterflies, plants, snakes and any other collectibles. We not only collected butterflies but johnny would teach each of us to mount them using special insect pins and blotters, used by professionals, that he would give us. Imagine that: an eight year old kid given the tools professionals use and taught how the pros use them. Later, as I got older he trusted me and some of the other kids with cyanide killing bottles (sold by Wards Scientific), used for killing insects, and no one ever had a bad accident. In fact, over the many years that Johnny did his thing, there were no serious accidents–ever.|
|After the war Johnny was given a 39 Ford station wagon (A.K.A. the “Woody”), and we went everywhere. One day we would be at the worlds largest tungsten mine in Townsville, North Carolina, collecting mineral specimens; the next day we might be on Occoneehee Island at Clarksville, Virginia, excavating Indian burial sights along side the archeologist from the Smithsonian (this was as Kerr Lake was filling, A.K.A., Buggs Island); or walking cornfields in the Stanton River flood plane, in search of Indian arrowheads; in the mountains picking blueberries and looking for snakes; walking the dark Country Club woods collecting Catocala moths; or night time on a friend’s farm with a portable gasoline generator and lights (that I had “borrowed” from the National Cemetery’s tool house) to catch moths; going to an abandoned gold mine collecting minerals… And this went on nonstop every day in the summer and every weekend the rest of the year.|
|Johnny smoked cigars and preached against cigarettes. He would ask if anyone wanted a cigar, and would pass them around to the kids who wanted them. I do not smoke today, I believe, because of that “freedom.” His ideas on being addicted to anything–be it tobacco, alcohol or drugs – was the thought of being: “A slave to a big green leafy vegetable!” He thought, as we all did, that allowing such a thing to happen to yourself was pretty Damn Dumb.|
|Good ver Evil
John used to talk about the human soul, and how many people didn’t believe that they even had a soul. He would say how the two greatest principalities in the universe–Heaven and Hell–were fighting over our immortal soul. And that if you didn’t recognize that you even had one: “You would surely lose it.” The Music School
Back in the twenties, John had a band that used to tour the southern United States–he even played guitar with Jimmy Rodgers in the late twenties. Later he established a music school in Washington, DC. He hired lots of music teachers, and had a thriving business. He tells the story of when he first moved into his new offices. It seems that the school, which was on the second floor, was over a bank, and John deduced that his private office–and more precisely his desk and chair were directly over the bank’s vault. So he had the sign on the front door changed to read: “Westbrook Music School, Ass sets over a Million Dollars.” Up until the depression, John was prospering in his music school. He had over a dozen instructors working for him and had accumulated a tidy sum. Business dropped off as the depression got worse. Instead of letting his people go, he paid their salaries until all his savings were gone. It would have never occurred to him to do otherwise.
|Westbrook used to say that smoking could be dangerous, especially if you were absent minded. “Why is that?” I asked. “You might throw the wrong butt out the window.” Then there was the time when he was dating a young lady and was getting ready to light up: he asked her, “…do you mind if I smoke?” To which she replied, “Frankly John, I don’t care if you Burn!”|
|Watch where you Step
I was about seven years old when I first started going with Westbrook on day hikes. Once, our first or second grade class was hiking to Pumpkin Creek, and I had to “Do #2.” I knew that John carried toilet paper for just such situations, so I told him I need to “do number two.” He gave me the toilet paper and told me to go up the trail to do my business, and that they would wait there until I finished. I did my business, and came back to where everybody was waiting, and we all proceeded up the trail in the direction that I had done my business. To my horror there in the middle of the trail was my business–I had done it right in the middle of the trail: there for all the world to see. I felt about one inch high, and on top of that I got a rather pointed lecture from Mr. Westbrook about not “crapping” where everybody else has to walk! Forty seven years later I can remember every horrifying detail, and the comments from the other kids–especially the girls…
|Wish Upon a Star
John was a great musician, and would play while Bill Hathaway drove. Once on a trip he was playing his bass ukulele and taking requests–I said I’d like to hear: “Wish Upon a Star,” from Disney’s Pinocchio. So he set about slowly picking each chord through the song. Then he played it through flawlessly–it was beautiful, I was brought to tears. I was really impressed because I had recently seen, on TV, Arthur Godfrey take 6 weeks to learn a much simpler song under the tutelage of the show’s lead guitarist. So I asked John when was the last time he had played that particular song: he said that this was the first time, that he had heard it before and was familiar with the song, but that was the first time he had ever really played it. Duke and Snoopy
Westbrook was loved by both my dogs, Duke and Snoopy, and he loved them. John liked to tell of all the times that he would get off the bus at the corner of Jefferson and Lee streets, where he would meet up with Duke and they would head off for the woods near Almegro and A & D cliff or the Pumpkin creek woods. And at the end of the day, how they would part company at the same corner: John going his way and Duke going his–“Not a word spoken.” Westbrook at 100 Yards
When I was about 10 years old, Bobby Plott and I rode our bikes to the Schoolfield woods. We had our nets and killing bottles with us and were looking for Catocalas (moths that hide on trees). After about an hour of pushing our bicycles through the woods, I stopped dead in my tracks, sniffed the air, and said,” I smell Westbrook,” to which a voice replied: “Right you are.” There standing about 75 yards down the path was John, net in one hand, knapsack in the other, a big Blue Ribbon cigar clinched in his teeth, and a big grin on his face. John had a certain odor, unlike anybody else: a combination of cigar, cyanide from the killing bottles and a musty smell–tannin or leafy smell from the woods.
|Juu get uurn bud?
One twilight eve we were going moth collecting at a special sap tree that John knew about: “The moths swarmed like mad at this tree.” We were unloading the nets and a couple of cardboard boxes filled with killing bottles out of the back of John’s beat-up old 1939 Ford station wagon. About that time we saw a shadowy figure, carrying a large cardboard box, come out of the woods and get into his car. As he drove by us he slowed down and leaned out the window and hollered: “Juu get uurn bud?” We figured out a little later that the local bootleggers kept their “stash” of whisky in those woods until it was time to “run it.”The Grave Digger
One cold winter’s day we were digging Indian burials on Occoneehee Island where it was so cold the ground was frozen. Each of us was digging in our own 3 foot deep pit, using trawl and brush, and sometimes a shovel. Because the island was being used as a cow pasture there were cow chips (dried or nearly dry cow pie) everywhere. Well, after a half hour of digging, somebody–Johnny we think–tossed a cow chip at one of the nearby pits, and of course, there was retaliation: the shit was flying. Bobby Plott, whose pit opened onto Johnny’s pit, ran out of cow droppings and in frustration picked up the largest frozen clod of dirt and heaved it at John. The big clod dropped into John’s lap and broke open–exposing the best preserved skull ever unearthed on the island.Look down that lonesome Row
Arrow head hunting was a great example of how you cannot see an object (arrow head or spear point) if your mind’s eye isn’t use to seeing it… Many a newcomer would walk right over a perfect arrowhead or spear point and never see it. John would always walk where the novice had walked and find as much as if it were a virgin row. He would make a point of showing the newcomer the find, in a way that didn’t hurt their feelings. In fact, it made them a more vigilant collector. After some experience you could spot an artifact with only the minutest part showing above the dirt. Belly Wash
We lived on junk food and “belly wash.” We rarely took any food or drink with us, we would stop at every country store we could find and stock up on every weird sweet goodie we could find. My specialty was finding exotic drinks: I discovered the original mountain dew in the Roanoke valley, it was in a light green bottle shaped like a little wine bottle – it was great tasting
|–John would say: “Why, he’s so dumb he was twelve before he realized the Chamber of Commerce didn’t have handles on it.” –He was into recycling very early on, he always talked about starting a business recycling toilet paper.
–Or if you answered his question on some subject or other correctly: “You have just won a chocolate covered wristwatch.”
–John would tell the story of how his grandfather use to make home brew back during prohibition. The relatives thought it was so good that they were constantly nagging him to get a patent on the formula, to send it to the government and have it analyzed. So he sent a sample to the Department of Agriculture. After about three months he received an official looking letter from the U.S.D.A. He opened it and read it to his excited family: ” Dear sir, we are sorry to inform you that your mule has diabetes.”
–He would tell how his father had gone hunting and had killed a Moose, an Elk, and wounded a Mason.”
–He might ask someone “Just how much would you charge to haunt a house?”
–He might play some piece of music no one had ever heard before, and title it: “When Lightning Struck the Outhouse–second movement.”
–Referring to his 39 ford station wagon, “The Crate,” and driving up mountain sides so often, he claimed he was going to write a book: “Round the World in Second Gear.”
–If somebody passed us on the road in a hurry and somewhat recklessly, he would say “Hurry bud, you gotta get home before your beer gets warm.
|Before John got wheels, we went everywhere on the bus… Then Came the “Crate.”|
|39 Ford station wagon
(1).. John’s beat-up 39 Ford (“Woody”) station wagon, the “Crate,” ended it’s over 400 thousand mile life …
|After the Crate retired, John was given a 46 Ford station wagon which he dubbed the “Gad Wagon.”Back in 1953 we were out in the middle of hurricane Hazel, when a severe hail storm hit us denting the Crate and putting holes in its cloth covered wooden slat roof, resulting in many a wet ride after that. When it would rain Westbrook use to say it was dryer outside of the car.|
|An image of John:
Westbrook, chomping down on an long-since-extinguished stub of a cigar, pontificating on some subject or other, while meticulously scrubbing a rock or pottery shard with a toothbrush under running water in the sink of his work area located in one corner of his tiny museum
|Our overnight trip to Little Switzerland:Bill Hathaway, Johnny, Durwood, Billy Norman, Bobby Plott, myself and several more–who’s names escape me–went on an overnight trip to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.
We all piled into Bill’s brand new Suburban; going from quarry to quarry and an occasional gem shop looking for mineral specimens for Bill’s Nature Specimens Unlimited enterprise. We ended up in Little Switzerland, North Carolina–just off the Sky Line Drive.
It was the height of the tourest season, and we were mingling with some pretty well-to-do folks, some of whom were in evening cloths and headed for a jewelry auction. We did feel a little out of place…
After eating supper we all went to the local Hotel where we occupied several rooms that Bill had reserved for us.
Here we were: young kids, away from home, in a hotel room “unsupervised”–you get the idea.
The most vivid memory of that trip: one group of kids–Billy Norman, Bobby Plott, myself and one or two others were negotiating the extra bunk beds with little room to move around; when there came a knock on the door. I climbed over several beds and people, and opened the door–expecting the manager with eviction orders.
There stood Johnny. He was waring only his flowered boxer shorts, a sleeveless undershirt, his white legs–briefly exposed but for the garters holding up his dark socks, his hiking brogans, a stump of a cigar in his mouth, and on his head he was holding a large painted wooden fruit bowl–upside down like a coolie hat–asking some silly question.
Our reaction was enormous and uncontrolled!!
Up until that point in my life I don’t think I had ever experienced anything as Funny! Ever!
It broke the tension, to say the least; and with out saying so–we felt less out of place. We kind-a owned the place from there on out
M i s c
|Candy and Bubble GumDuring the war when sugar was rationed and candy was very scarce, Johnny was somehow able to get his hands on candy and bubble gum and would distribute it among the kids at the various schools. Apparently he had talked the local candy distributor, K.L. Baruddy, into donating the goodies to the kids of Danville.|
|Snoopy’s Close Encounter of the Skunk Kind:
Snoopy–my globe trotting dog–encountered a skunk at a feldspar quarry near Bedford, Virginia. He smelled so bad that I seriously thought of leaving him there. During the trip home he kept nuzzling me for comfort–ugg!
|.Johnny James Westbrook, Jr.
William Taylor Hathaway Frank Bliss
–et al.Bill Hathaway Recalls:
…Once on an outting with Westbrook, I planted a fake flower near the car while “babe brother” was taking a leak. This flower was one of those plastic, red monstrosities that are placed on grave sites. When Johnny got into the front seat and lit his cigar (for the third time) I drovc off—only to have him rave: STOP, STOP! I glanced in the mirror and pulled over on the shoulder. Johnny returned to the car and said, “Ain’t this for the birds” and handed me the flower. I was laughing so hard that it took me several minutes to get started back on the road. Johnny soon figured it out and appreciated the joke.
|For years I–along with everyone else who knew Johnny–hoped that a real professional writer would take pen in hand and chronicle the life of this Magnificent Soul. I make no secret that I’m disappointed that one of the most gifted writers that I’ve had the pleasure of reading, over the years, has turned it down. Without mentioning his name–if Henry had known Johnny it would be a different story! Five or six years ago–with no thought to Political Correctness–I sat down and started putting down my recollections of John and the Crud Crew. I thought that I would not remember enough to make the effort worthwhile; but to my amazement, no sooner did I get one thought down, three others would come “flooding in,” out running my ability to get it all down. To that point: I never finished fleshing-out all of the stories who’s titles appear at the end.
About a year ago I discovered the perfect home for my recollections of John–the WWW. I had it in the back of my mind that this would be ideal for a Collection of Remembrances of Johnny.
Recently a good friend–Mike King of Apex, NC–died at an early age. At the wake, I promised his father that I would write to him about my recollections of his son. I wanted his parents to view their son through the eyes of his contemporaries. I wanted them to know how well respected and loved their son was by his friends and co-workers.
Trivia Question of the day: What is 2290-J ?
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|Johnny’s “Gad Rocks”
Johnny believed that the TOOLS used by the American Indians for making arrow heads, spear points, arrow shafts, etc., consisted of a finite number of Basic Tool Shapes. He spent many years amassing evidence that indicated these basic shapes had been passed down and improved over the generations of Tool Makers, that is, the tools which were crude in the beginning–had, over ensuing generations– steadily improved in quality and utility. To make his point, he would lay out “sets” of similar shaped tools which clearly illustrated their evolution.In the area around Milton, NC, there were many great locations for collecting artifacts. Most were tobacco fields which afforded the best collecting; ones that had been freshly plowed and recently rained on. –The plow would inevitably “turn-up” hidden artifacts while the rain would wash off the top layer of dirt exposing the latest “treasures.”At one such field we were drawn there by the beautiful dark blue Amethyst quartz crystals. Some times we would find good specimens of the crystals, but many promising specimens would have a flaw–a gouge or badly abraded spot. Though collected by many of us as mineral specimens, Johnny believed these were tools–pure and simple; that the Indians only saw “our pretty blue crystals” as highly prized tough material for making their badly needed TOOLS.
|John’s Book on the GuitarTo “fulfill a life long dream,” John set about writing a Book on the Guitar. Over a span of three years, he spent all his spare time–and more– writing this treatise.
In the end, a publisher thought it good enough to publish if John would “pare it down” to a single volume. At the time it would have required 3 volumes. To my knowledge, John never finished the revised single volume. It’s my guess, that his dream had been fulfilled, and he was less interested in its final publication. I don’t think he saw it as a revenue source. I know that’s not why he wrote it!
The value in this particular work–according to Johnny: it was a catalog of–as well as, a method for discovering –“Guitar Cords.” Apparently, up until that time, there were a limited number of known ways of making popular chords– fingering frets, strumming, etc. The larger the repertoire of ways of making certain chords a musician has, the better their performance. That is, it is how smoothly and how fast a Guitarist can TRANSITION from one chord to the next that affects the quality of their performance. In fact, Johnny pointed out that one of the reasons for the success of many renown Guitarists was their secret collection of ways of making Chords, and that it is was not unusual for them to take their chords to their graves.