My life with Papa J was one of love, family, church, and community: a life in which I lived the biggest dream possible. But even more importantly, James Edward Johnson, aka Papa J, lived out his dream as businessman, local celebrity, and social force in Fulshear.
I met Papa J in the library where I worked as the Missouri City Branch manager with Fort Bend Libraries. While he was an avid reader, we often found ourselves talking about how our families showed love to others through baking. He often spoke of opening a small business: a business where he could show his love and appreciation for people by baking cookies. He wanted very much to be a smart business man and more famous than Amos in the cookie business. One evening, he brought me a tray of cookies to sample and not long after that, he opened Cookies by Papa J in Missouri City.
I began my life as one of 11 children of sharecroppers in Simonton. My parents Mandell and Ethel Newsome worked hard and had great expectations for all of their children. They taught us that reputation always precedes you; that you must serve God and honor the family name, and that the world can take a lot from you. But, they believed, if you get an education that is the one thing that the world cannot take from you. Following my parents’ advice, I graduated from Lamar Consolidated High School and was the first in my family to go to college. I attended Texas Southern University and then, later, graduated from Texas Woman’s University. I returned back to Fort Bend County to work in the George Memorial Library.
After returning from Denton, my aged parents needed regular attention, especially my mother. I was prompted to find housing in Fulshear-Simonton. It was a great opportunity to live in the home of a very historic Fulshear family. The home had been owned by Mr. Ed and Betty Huggin. It now became my domicile. At Huggin’s Hill, James and I began dreaming of building our life together in Fulshear.
James asked my parents for my hand in marriage before my mother passed on April 23, 2001. Our marriage soon followed. In excitement for a new life together, we planned a wedding and the reception took place at First United Methodist Church in Fulshear on Saturday, November 16, 2002.
As James made plans to retire, this next part of his life was devoted to his dream of opening Cookies by Papa J. No other location would do but Fulshear, Texas. He loved Fulshear, especially for its country, hometown feeling. To James, it was a place where people knew and cared about each other.
James grew up in Third Ward in Houston, and he resided in Missouri City for quite some time. When he relocated to Fulshear, he knew only my family. But James never had any trouble making friends. After retiring, he began a part-time job with Fort Bend Senior Citizens. From that experience, he volunteered for Meals on Wheels. His love of listening to people made him a local celebrity around town. Mrs. Viola Randle, former Mayor of Fulshear, fondly referred to James as her son.
In fact, James loved the Fort Bend community and enjoyed serving on many local community projects. Shortly after settling into Fulshear, James was called into the ministry on February 22, 2004. He served as the Associate Minister at Lively Hope Missionary Baptist Church.
As Reverend James Edward Johnson, he was the happiest he had ever been in life. On May 1, 2008, he achieved his dream by opening Cookies by Papa J in the town he loved so dearly, Fulshear, Texas.
Here, James served as a member of the Board on Fulshear Development Corporation. Cookies by Papa J was where his heart was happiest: he was meeting people and having fun getting to know and serving his customers. Since James never met a stranger, people from all walks of life would come by the shop to talk to him. He spent time ministering to people as they traveled to work or as they took their children to and from school. James, a former Marine, would also entertain many of his fellow veterans who would stop by and talk about their military experiences. Many exchanges of “Semper Fi” filled the shop.
In his love for the community, Papa J considered it an honor to donate cookies to many organizations, including schools and families in need. It was his desire to help anyone that he could. Papa J joined in events such as Carol McCann’s Bike for Mike and other community sponsored activities that allowed people the opportunity to help their neighbors.
In the cookie business, he often said his success was due to the parents, students, and staff of Huggins Elementary and Simonton Christian Academy. The children regularly stopped into the shop for cookies and ice cream. Seeing them filled his days with joy. The children, he thought, were his best customers. When they were around, Papa J laughed the loudest. They were his most honest and sincere critics. They showed their love to Papa J through their words of kindness, especially in the way they conveyed how good the cookies were. For Papa J, these were his proudest moments.
One day in September, 2009, Papa J became ill. The cookie shop had to be closed temporarily. As his illness continued and became more serious, the cookie shop was closed. We were all focused on Papa J getting well. But, despite our efforts, it was not to be. Papa J entered hospice care on February 14, 2012. It was the worst Valentine’s Day of my life. While we spent many precious days talking about life and faith, the one last charge Papa J left me with is this: “You have to take it from here.” Papa J passed on June 7, 2012.
Many of our friends encouraged me to continue Papa J’s dream, our dream, for the cookie shop. As I began considering reopening the business, many friends here in Fulshear helped me start baking again. They helped me continue the cookie dream. During that first Christmas, 2012, I decided I would rather bake than grieve. Our closest friends spread the word that Papa J’s cookies were once again available. I renewed the vow James had made to the community: I would oversee the business’ return to Fulshear.
Papa J loved God, country, family, community. He showed his love, in part, by baking cookies. My mission is to re-establish Papa J’s Cookies in Fulshear to the place it was when James was alive. Like the saying, go big or go home, I am already at home. So, in honor of Papa J, I’m hoping to go bigger with the business. I end this story as it began. As Papa J believed, with love for God and community, “Our cookies are baked with love.”