LINDA JOHNSON: Tupelo is 'in my heart'

By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal

Linda Johnson started her first day at the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau with a bang – literally – when she backed into county music star Reba McEntire’s car.
Johnson hopes her final day more than 13 years later is a lot less dramatic. She officially retires Wednesday as executive director of the CVB. Deputy director Neal McCoy takes over on Thursday.
Since her announcement in April that she would retire, her tourism colleagues have been busy celebrating her career and wishing her well.
This year, she’s also been inducted into the state tourism Hall of Fame and become the first civilian to be awarded the Natchez Trace Parkway Superintendent’s Appreciation Award.
Along with the awards, her colleagues have been busy telling tales about Johnson’s adventures.
The McEntire story came out during her last meeting as vice chair of the Tupelo Coliseum Commission.
After the meeting, Johnson explained what really happened, according to her: It was her first day and the CVB provided a Chevrolet Impala for the executive director.
“I was not used to such a large vehicle,” Johnson said. “I thought I looked behind me.”
But then she felt the bump as her car backed into the car that was taking McEntire to the arena.
When retelling the story, Johnson puts her hands on her head and recalls that after the bump, she said in a panicked tone, “Oh, my gosh! This is my first day of work and I ran into Reba McEntire. Oh, my gosh!”
No one was hurt and McEntire was “extremely, extremely nice,” Johnson said.
The cars weren’t damaged, but Johnson’s attitude changed toward the vehicle.
“We soon got rid of that big gray whale,” she said.

A true Elvis fan
She sat in her office Tuesday, laughing as she told the tale again. Decked out in one of her signature business suits, three-inch heels, perfect makeup and coiffed hair, she didn’t look anything like the frazzled person she described years ago.
But she said she was nervous the first day on the job, considering she had a 15-minute orientation.
However, she wasn’t a newbie to the industry. She had been at the Jackson, Tenn., CVB for 15 years before being recruited to Tupelo. At her Tennessee job, she also was the business manager for Miss Tennessee.
Johnson, a self-described “true Elvis fan” who saw him in concert three times, said she was interested in a job in Presley’s birthplace.
“When I got here, I fell in love with the people interviewing me, fell in love with the city and it didn’t take me long to see that great things could be done here,” she said. “They hired me that day.”
And the city’s first female department head hasn’t stopped working since. An average work week at the CVB usually is 60 hours.
“It’s a lot of long hours,” she said. “It’s not an 8-to-5 job. You are always up, always positive, always have a great attitude. There’s not room for downtime. That’s not only my job but the staff is the same way.”
While she’s proud of the CVB and the staff, she’s quick to downplay the achievements.
“We’re selling hospitality, not curing cancer,” she said.
But even with her disclaimer, she has a long list of accomplishments.
She spearheaded a $1.5 million expansion of the Tupelo CVB. She also was one of the founders of the Natchez Trace Compact, the public marketing group for the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Her other activities include the Tupelo Elvis Presley Festival, the Tupelo Film Festival, the Blue Suede Cruise, the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance and the 50th re-enactment of Elvis’s concert in Tupelo.
Plus, she makes time for her biggest hobby – going to the gym.
“I lift weights,” she said matter-of-factly. “I have a program where I work different muscle groups on different days.”
Along with lifting weights, she does at least 30 minutes of cardio training five or six days a week, even when she is traveling.
“I never go without my tennis shoes,” she said. “It’s good for my mind. It gives me a chance to relax.”
In addition to her time at the gym, she’s an avid reader and plans to do a lot of reading during her retirement. She loves mysteries, biographies and the Wall Street Journal.
Plus, the woman who sports beautiful long nails said she likes to get her hands dirty.
“I love gardening,” she said. “I love to do the yard work. I love digging in the dirt and getting the mulch down.”
Her garden is in Germantown, where she has a house with her husband, Ben.
“If it wasn’t for my husband’s job, we would probably be here, not Germantown,” she said.
Until last month, she had a condo in Tupelo. The two would commute to be with each other, depending on their schedules.
But since she sold her condo last month, she’s been living in various Tupelo hotels until it’s time for her departure to Germantown.
“My car’s packed,” she said, waving to it through the window of her office. “It looks like a closet in there.”
She’s tackling the practical parts of her retirement, but she also has been able to find time to let her upcoming retirement sink in.
“It’s bittersweet because I loved my job,” she said. “But it’s not the job that I’ll miss but the friendships I’ve made in the city and this great, big, beautiful world. … I’ve had a successful career and I’m looking forward to spending time with my family.”
She added that she is confident in McCoy’s abilities to lead the CVB when she is gone.
“I’m excited about the future of Tupelo,” she said. “I see it blossoming even more. I’m a part of the spirit of Tupelo. It’s in my heart. It will always be home to me.”

Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.