LEESBURG, Ga. -- Betty Johnson was all set for her first Lee County Commission re-election campaign. She'd started fine-tuning her literature, had talked with supporters about her plans and had even taken signs from her 2008 campaign to a local business to see if they might be re-usable.
Without warning, though, a radical thought worked its way into Johnson's consciousness. And it wouldn't go away.
That thought, at first such a departure from everything she'd ever considered in her 40 years of service to Lee County that she summarily dismissed it, kept recurring, distracting her with its urgency. Finally, she could no longer ignore it.
So she considered it. And she prayed about it. And she talked with sons James and Gregory about it. And, in the end, the radical thought won out.
"It was the hardest decision I've ever made in my life," Johnson said Friday. "But I have decided that I will not seek re-election to my seat on the commission.
"Lee County has always been a part of me; my love for this county is deep in my blood. But the time has come for me to let someone else have their turn at serving the county. It's just time."
Johnson announced her decision to Lee officials at Friday's final FY 2012-13 budget hearing, and their shock was genuine. After listening to her emotional announcement, though, that shock turned to admiration.
"I hate to think about you not being on the commission, but you deserve to have time to do the things you want to do," Lee County Clerk Christi Dockery said.
Johnson said her desire to spend more time with her sons and their children and to travel with her sisters were the primary motivating factors in her decision.
"I've also been dealing with the death of my pastor (Robert Chambless of Friendship Baptist), who died last week at age 49," she said. "He's only a year older than my oldest son. It's really dawned on me how short life is."
Born and raised in Lee County, the former high school cheerleader combined her love for her native county and her passion for politics into a career of service that will reach 40 years at the end of her first term with the commission. She was employed in the county tax commissioner's office for eight years before being elected to run that office in 1980. She stayed there for 28 years before retiring.
Not long after she ended that phase of her public service career, Johnson decided to start another by running for a seat on the County Commission. After being elected to serve in the Leesburg District, she became a beloved figure on the board.
"I personally have nothing but respect for Commissioner Johnson, for her honesty, her integrity and her ability to make informed decisions," Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "Politics never entered into her decision-making; she always voted her conscience.
"I tried to talk her out of this decision, but after talking with her I can sense that she's at peace with it."
Johnson is especially revered by county employees, who have seen her as a champion. She even lists the facts that there have been no employee layoffs or furloughs during her tenure as one of the highlights of her time on the commission.
"The workers of the county love Miss Betty because they know she's going to do what's right, even if it makes some people mad," Finance Director Heather Kittrell said. "They also love the fact that she's going to look out for them."
Dockery called Johnson a great role model.
"I've worked with Miss Betty in the tax commissioner's office and with the County Commission, and she's one of the most open-minded people I know," the county clerk said. "It's so obvious how much she loves Lee County and how devoted she is to the county.
"It's hard for a lot of people to grasp what it takes to fully engage as part of the county's government; it takes a lot of work and dedication. In that respect, Ms. Betty has been a great role model for anyone who would consider running for office."
Johnson said working with her fellow commissioners was a highlight of her 40 years of service. It was that group's emphasis on improving the county's quality of life, she said, that led to construction of a new fire/EMS station in Smithville, a county animal shelter, a new library off U.S. Highway 82 and the completion of a number of road improvement projects.
"This is really a good board, a group that really worked together to make Lee County better," she said. "All five had their own opinions about issues, but they've never let that interfere with doing what was in the best interest of the county.
"I can honestly say every decision I've made on that board came from right here. (Johnson taps her chest over her heart.)"
Her fellow board members speak of Johnson with admiration.
"I understand Miss Betty wanting to spend time with her family, but I hate to see her leave," Commissioner Dennis Roland said. "She's been serving this county for close to 40 years, and it's been a pleasure to work with her."
Commissioner Bill Williams said Johnson's experience was an asset to the commission.
"All five board members have different areas of expertise," the county's Budget Committee chairman said. "From Miss Betty's 40 years of experience with the Lee County government, she knows the inner workings of all departments. I've relied on her advice."
County Administrator Tony Massey paid Johnson perhaps the greatest compliment.
"You talk with Betty Johnson for about five minutes, and you know her heart is with Lee County," he said.
Johnson said she will retire when her four-year term ends in December. She'll spend more time with her sons, spoil her grandkids and travel with her sisters to parts of the United States she hasn't seen yet. But a part of her heart will always be with county officials and workers who have become members of her extended family.
"I'll be glad to help out anyone in the county any way I can, and I'll be glad to talk with any candidate who is interested in running for my seat about the district and about what it's like being on the commission," she said. "My wish is that we'll elect someone else who feels about the county the way I do, but to be honest with you that will be hard. I don't mind saying there aren't many people who love this place like I do.
"But, like I said, it's time to move on. I'm ready. Just announcing this, I already feel there's a great weight that's been lifted off me. I feel at peace. It's so unreal, I can't even explain it."
Still, the feisty public servant who's always put the needs and wishes of the county above her own is not ready to ease into that good night just yet. She offers a parting shot that's as much a challenge as it is a rebuke.
"I've heard a lot of people who plan to run for office say they're really involved with the county and its government," she says. "But, you know what, I haven't seen a one of them show up for these two weeks of open budget hearings."