Obituaries » John Samuel Johnston, Jr.

John Samuel Johnston, Jr.

November 29, 1946 - December 10, 2022

John Samuel Johnston, Jr., also known as Sam, Poppa or Judge, surrounded by family, died December 10th from complications of Parkinson’s disease which he battled for over 22 years. He was predeceased by his parents, John Samuel Johnston and Ruth Richards Johnston, and a son, Adam Wood Johnston (in 1977). He was married to the love of his life, Elizabeth Whitaker Thomasson Johnston, for over 54 glorious years.

He was a judge in the 24th circuit for over 31 years. He was 30 years old when first appointed to General District Court in 1977, the youngest district judge at that time in Virginia. Four years later he was elevated to circuit court and, at 34, was the youngest circuit judge in Virginia.

He was born November 29, 1946 in Anniston, Alabama and was raised in Weaver, Alabama. He received his education in the Alabama school system and was a graduate of the University of Alabama in 1968, where he was a member of Chi Phi social fraternity. He was a diehard fan of Alabama football and had many wonderful years watching the TIDE ROLL.

After the University of Alabama, he took his law degree at The University of Virginia, graduating in 1972. He was a member of Phi Alpha Delta legal fraternity and was elected to the law school council as a third-year student. After graduation, he began a one-year judicial clerkship in Birmingham with chief federal Judge Frank McFadden of the northern district of Alabama. After his clerkship, he returned to Lynchburg and began practicing law with Kizer, Phillips & Petty where he worked for 3 ½ years before being named judge.

He is survived by his wife, daughter Margaret Richards Johnston Shoemaker (Jason), son Whitaker Rustel Johnston (Abbey), daughter Mollie Gleason Johnston Hollingsworth (Mark), daughter Annie Gordon Johnston Vordermark (Matt), and bonus daughter Elizabeth Page Pettyjohn Birney. He also is survived by grandchildren Caroline Elizabeth Shoemaker, Thomas Adam Shoemaker, Samuel Robert Johnston, Scarlett Richards Johnston, Margaret Howard Vordermark, Frank Rustel Vordermark, and Kendall Mae Ramsay Hollingsworth.

Sam was an engaging, garrulous person who was at ease with everyone. He became friends with several individuals whom he had previously sentenced to the penitentiary and occasionally had lunch with them. He was a true sesquipedalian and a bibliophile – completing at least two crossword puzzles each day and attempting to add a new word to his vocabulary every day as well.
Sam was blessed with a keen intellect and a wonderful sense of humor – always looking forward to telling or hearing a good joke, whether told by him or someone else; he must have had at least 1000 jokes stored in his brain! It was not unusual for him to introduce Liz as his “first wife” or “current wife” or the “incumbent” wife all the while knowing how important she was to him.

Having loved several dogs throughout his life, his dog Dixie – a yellow lab – was his favorite. She hunted doves with him for many years. Sam loved the outdoors, especially dove shooting and he regularly would arrange dove hunts on farmland in Campbell and many other surrounding counties. He had a group of friends who would go with him and his son on many Saturdays and loved the camaraderie, especially with his son and daughter-in-law and daughter and son-in-law and his hunting buddies too numerous to name. He successfully participated in dove hunts as recently as September of this year. Sam was well known for his wild game dinners at the end of each hunting season which featured exotic meats such as moose, yak, cobra, mountain lion, bear, ostrich, emu and alligator. He belonged to 4 chitterling clubs: Blue Ridge; Central Virginia; Seminole Trail; and Tobacco Row.

Sam was an avid gardener, planting as many as 30 tomato plants along with rows of corn, green beans, squash, cucumbers, eggplant and okra (his favorite vegetable). He once grew an 8 lb. 3 oz. sweet potato. One year he won a ribbon at the Campbell County Food Fair for his Zucchini Relish. Sam spent many long and happy hours in the garden and shared his harvest with friends, neighbors, and family.

Sam also loved to teach. After graduating from Alabama he taught at the junior high in Scottsville, high school at Rock Hill Academy in Charlottesville and at Central Va. Community College and Averett College. He regularly went to the local schools to speak to government classes and welcomed high school students to attend trials of interest.

Having served for 31 years, Sam had special insight to the problems society brought to him. He was known as a fast, fair, and patient judge with a great sense of humor and acquitted himself thusly throughout his tenure. He served on Governor Robb’s task force to combat drunk driving and Governor Wilder’s commission for parole and sentencing reform and was a charter member of the Virginia Sentencing Commission.

He was a popular representative of the judiciary and was frequently asked to speak or present to various civic organizations and bar groups over the years. Among them were the Va. Bar Assn (VBA), the Va. State Bar (VSB), the Va. Assn of Defense Attorneys (VADA) and the Va. Trial Lawyers Assn (VTLA). He led the VTLA judges panel at its annual convention for 16 consecutive years and was awarded the VTLA Distinguished Service Award in 2007. Sam was also a guest presenter, lecturer, and instructor to groups and bar associations across the country. During his career and travels he became friends with noted authors Mickey Spillane (creator of Mike Hammer) and Lewis Grizzard (noted Southern humorist), and Bobby Lee Cook (the Georgia attorney who inspired the Matlock series).

He is the author of “Why Judges Wear Robes” and co-author of “The Art and Science of Mastering the Jury Trial” with Irv Cantor. He was named a Leader in the Law in 2011 and in 2016 received the Champion of Justice Award from the Va. chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocacy given to a judge “for his service to the community and for exemplary contributions to the people of Va.” For many years Sam invited jurors to return to court for a debriefing and question and answer session. He often told the jurors he did not want to treat them like mushrooms, i.e. “keep them in the dark and feed them horse manure”. Sam was one of the founding members of Juridical Solutions, a mediation group of retired judges across the state. Sam was honored to sit as a judge in Campbell County and considered Rustburg to be a second home. One of his landmark accomplishments was the construction of the new courthouse there to serve those who needed to be heard or were seeking justice.

Sam loved going to Litchfield Beach, SC with his family for over 40 consecutive years. But the thing he loved most was being with his family – Liz, Margo, Whit, Mollie Gleason and Annie Gordon; his sons-and-daughter-in-law; and his 7 grandchildren. Poppa was a hands-on father and never missed a baseball, softball, or soccer game in which one or more of his children participated. He also made it to every piano and dance recital to support his children in their activities.

The family truly appreciates each and every one who cared about him and helped him when Parkinson’s was attacking his ability to care for himself. The family is especially grateful to faithful friend Joe Malott, the local Parkinson’s Disease Support Group, Rock Steady Boxing, Centra Hospice, and to Candy, Erica, Peggy and Towanda.

It was his desire that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Adam Wood Johnston Scholarship Fund, University of Lynchburg, Attn.: Advancement Office, 1501 Lakeside Drive, Lynchburg, VA 24501 or to aid in restoring the historic courthouse – Campbell County Historical Society, P. O. Box 595, Rustburg, VA 24588.

Sam lived life well and fully. In keeping with Sam’s wishes, some of his ashes, along with those of his dog Dixie, will be scattered in his favorite dove field in Campbell County. A celebration of his life will be scheduled for a later date.

Tharp Funeral Home, Lynchburg is assisting the family.


Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea.

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

Any may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark:

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.

Sam – Poppa – Judge “has crossed” the bar.

Condolences & Tributes

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27 years ago Judge Johnson married my husband and I - I distinctly remember him telling us that he was pleased his day was starting with a happy occasion. A true gentleman - sending heartfelt condolences to all family.

Posted by Anonymous on March 1, 2023

I knew Sam as member of our chitin club. When he told a joke, he would start by saying “this is true story”. Pleasure to have known him.

Posted by Fred mayer on December 21, 2022

I’m thankful I had the chance to get to know Sam at our Westminster Canterbury dance class. What a special, gentle soul! Liz and family, I pray God will give you all comfort and peace during this time.

Posted by Barbie Andrews on December 20, 2022

Gleason I am so sorry to hear about your dad's passing. You probably don't remember me. You an I worked for Watts Real Estate some years ago and we only meet once or twice. Please accept my sincerest condolences. Cornell Mason

Posted by Cornell Mason on December 19, 2022

Our deepest sympathies go out to Liz and the entire Johnston family on the loss of this very special man! May he rest in peace. Bill and Nancy Blackwell Midlothian, VA

Posted by William Blackwell on December 18, 2022

My heart hurts learning that the dear Judge has passed. He was such a character outside of the courtroom and made everyone laugh and feel special. Sending prayers up for his family and countless friends.

Posted by Linda Thomas on December 16, 2022

I delivered his mail every day for years while working for the Post Office. One day he was in front of his house looking for where he parked his car, he told me it had an Alabama vanity plate on it. I said if it had a Tennessee vanity plate on it he could find it. Immediately he replied if it had a Tennessee plate on it he wouldn't want to find it. Great sense of humor from a great man. He gave me a signed copy of his book which I read. Praying for all his family. He will be missed.

Posted by Barry Sharpe on December 15, 2022

Witt, I'm sorry to hear of your loss. I didn't know him as well as so many others but from what has been said by so many of my friends, he was special. He'll be missed by many.

Posted by james r burruss on December 14, 2022

I am so very sorry to hear of the passing of Judge Johnston. This saddens my heart. May Jesus wrap his arms around you and give you the comfort you need in the upcoming days in Jesus name I pray.

Posted by Tricia Scott on December 14, 2022

So sorry to hear about Sams passing. What a great man and a great judge. So glad I got to know him.

Posted by David Williams on December 14, 2022

Such sad news to learn of Judge Johnston's passing. He was a wonderful jurist. I had the privilege of getting to know him when he was assigned to hear a capital murder case in Prince Edward County in which I was one of the defense attorneys. He was always professional, patient, caring, with a wonderful sense of humor that eased the tensions of such a case. He was an unforgettable individual and the epitome of an excellent trial judge. May your memories of this wonderful man ease the pain of your loss. He was one of a kind.

Posted by Anonymous on December 13, 2022

Judge Johnson was a great friend to Social Services, he was especially supportive of our adoptions and adult protective services. After he retired he still called to check on us. Such a learned and comical person, I never spoke to him without learning something and laughing hard. It was an honor to know a Renaissance man like My Favorite Judge (as he referred to himself, and rightly so!) May his friends and loved ones have God's peace--Judge J. surely did.

Posted by Susan Rosser Jones on December 13, 2022

Whitt, Pete and I send our love and sympathy in the loss of your dad. May God wrap His loving arms around you and your family to comfort you. Hold on to the memories.

Posted by Pete and Diane on December 13, 2022

Whit, we were so sorry to hear of the passing of your dad. Our deepest condolences 🙏🏽 The Perkins family

Posted by Desiree Perkins on December 12, 2022

I’m so sorry to hear of the judge’s passing. He worked with my mother when first appointed and when I met him just a few years ago she was thrilled he remembered her. Each time I saw him he’s was very kind and always brightened my day. He will be greatly missed.

Posted by Bill Dawson on December 12, 2022

So sorry Witt to learn of Judge Johnston passing ! He was a wonderful man who taught us young police officers so much. I enjoyed so much seeing and talking with him at Della’s Restaurant. He endorsed me during my run for Sheriff! You were such a great son to Him and that’s memories you will cherish. Condolences to you and the family, prayers for y’all to find peace in this difficult time.

Posted by E W Viar on December 12, 2022

Whit and family, What an amazing obituary for an amazing man. My deepest condolences, Tiffany Wormuth

Posted by Tiffany Wormuth on December 12, 2022

My mother spoke highly of Sam often referring to him as her boyfriend. He would always call her his girlfriend and carry on in the grocery store when he was shopping. Rest in peace. Prayers ro his family.

Posted by Robynne Fears on December 12, 2022

To the Johnston family, I had such great respect for the Judge. We hunted together for many years and it saddens my heart to hear of his passing. We had such great times at the courthouse and the many fields we spent time in. Please know that each of you are in my thoughts and prayers. Bill Elliott

Posted by William Elliott on December 12, 2022

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