GEORGETOWN — Every two years from 1992 to 2012, W. Layton Johnson was in the newspaper.
Donning his black tuxedo and top hat, he took on the role of town crier for Return Day in Georgetown.
From the balcony of the Sussex County Courthouse, he read the county election results just like town criers did way back when voters returned to the county seat to learn who won the elections.
He loved the tradition and he loved that it was in Georgetown, his hometown and the town that he led as mayor for 26 years.
“Everybody there already knew the results because of the radio and the newspaper,” said Mr. Johnson. “But I got up there and read them with the feeling, ‘Be careful. Don’t make a mistake.”
Mr. Johnson died a few days ago at the age of 89.
Back in November, this editor enjoyed a brief phone interview with Mr. Johnson.
We talked about how he looked forward to participating in the Return Day parade as grand marshal and how bittersweet it was since he wouldn’t be up on the balcony to read the results. He said there were some Kleenex moments as he dried some tears, he said.
“I got a lot of response from the people,” he said.
During our chat, he reminisced about his Return Day experiences.
At age 5, he was the fire company’s mascot and his father put him on a truck to ride in the parade.
“One man said, ‘You shouldn’t ride on that fire truck. You might fall,’” Mr. Johnson remembered. “Dad said, ‘Get on there son.’”
This editor asked Mr. Johnson if there were any Return Day years that stood out more than others.
“One year, in the parade, a horse died,” Mr. Johnson replied matter-of-factly. “We took a backhoe and buried it. The board of health came in and asked where it was. We told them we didn’t know. Damned if I was going to tell them where it was.”
The ox roast, he said, was always special, too. After the election results are announced, free ox sandwiches are handed out.
“One thing about it, don’t matter how bad it was or is, people would stand in line to get their sandwich,” he said.
“Years ago, when I was a boy, there was a man that chewed tobacco and he would spit the juice on the hindquarter,” he recalled. “He said that tobacco juice flavored it. That was a long time ago.”
Another year, he recalled the excitement of afire at the ox roast.
“The fire was so hot it melted the zinc off the tin roof,” he said.
* * *
In our archives, this editor found a neat story on Mr. Johnson from 1994.
Current Delaware State News Features Editor Craig Horleman wrote it.
“When you stop and think about it, Return Day is really amazing,” Mr. Johnson said at the time. “You have guys that have been calling each other S.O.B. s for the whole campaign riding next to each other two days after the election. In 40 years, I can only think of one person who refused to ride with his opposition. I can’t put in the paper who it is, because he’s dead. But if he was alive, I’d tell you who it was.”
Mr. Johnson served as one of Return Day’s organizers in the 1950s. He remained the event treasurer during the time he was mayor.
He said in 1988 he felt out of sorts when Joe Booth had taken over as mayor and did the welcome address.
“All those years,” said Mr. Johnson, “I was in charge of giving the speech, but all of sudden, here was someone else who was doing it. I was still up on the podium, but I had nothing to do.”
When Ronnie Dodd retired as the crier after the 1990 event, Mr. Johnson took over and put his own spin on it.
One bit of advice he offered to Kirk Lawson, who became the new crier last year, was how to endear himself to the locals.
“You can tell Kirk I always got a lot of laughs when I said only Sussex County people because that’s all that counts,” said Mr. Johnson.