HILLSIDE, NJ — One of Hillside’s finest will be honored at a Black History Month event in the township.
The Feb. 18 program, presented by the Hillside Fraternal Order of Police and the Hillside Police Benevolent Association, will be held at Hillside Public Library and will honor retired Hillside Police Detective Calvin Johnson, the very first African-American police officer to work in Hillside.
Johnson, who joined the Hillside Police Department in 1980, served in Vietnam while in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was appointed to the HPD on Nov. 3, 1980. He retired from the HPD in 2003. His achievements include more than 40 awards and commendations while serving the Hillside community for 23 years.
Johnson moved to Hillside in 1976, and said that he enjoyed being a part of the community from the beginning.
“I enjoyed the people I worked with,” Johnson told LocalSource in a phone call last week. “It was a good working experience. I enjoyed what I did. There was wonderful camaraderie. It was good; it was a wonderful experience for me.”
According to Johnson, the ’80s were a busy time in Hillside.
“There was a lot going on,” Johnson recalled. “Crack cocaine came on the scene, and it was quite common to have car chases. We would have three or four every day. There were also car thefts. There was a lot of stuff going on all around us. Even though Hillside was small, it was busy. It was busier back then.”
Johnson said that he enjoyed the fast pace and variety of his job.
“You enjoyed going to work,” Johnson said. “It was always something different. I guess when you’re younger, the more activity, the better.”
Johnson said that although he is retired from the force, he knows the newer officers at the police department.
“I know most of the guys,” Johnson said. “I try to keep abreast of new guys coming in.”
Hillside acting Chief of Police, Louis Panarese, said that his fond memories of Johnson span many years.
“My mother cooked for him,” Panarese said, recalling his Italian mother who enjoyed serving plenty of Italian food when Johnson came by for dinner.
According to Panarese, Johnson, who was hired approximately 18 months before Panarese and who later worked for him as a detective, was always there to help new officers that joined the force.
“He took everybody under his wing,” Panarese said. “He was a great cop. He is a good guy, and it was a sad day when he left. You will have a very difficult time finding someone to say anything negative about him,” he said of Johnson.
Hillside Councilman George “Tony” Alston, who initiated the event and who will be speaking as part of the program, said that he got to know Johnson from around the neighborhood, and the two got to talking and sharing their love for a good cigar.
“We would go out and smoke cigars and we talked,” Alston said of Johnson. “We talked sports, we talked life. He is one of the humblest men in the world. His cousin mentioned to me that he was the first black cop in Hillside. When I got all of the information, I was floored. He never mentioned it. I told him I wanted to honor him, and he said, “Really? Me?”
Johnson said that he was humbled by Alston’s words.
“Naturally, I was surprised,” he said. “I’m kind of a low-key guy. That’s not really my forte, being out there. I’m very humbled. I just hope I don’t get too choked up out there.”
One of the rewards, said Johnson, is when people come up to thank him for his service.
“One of the rewards is when people that you’ve known, the youngsters who have grown into adults, they come up to you and embrace you and say they remember you, that you’ve done something for them. That’s the greatest reward. You get to make a difference and it shows.”
Anthony Salters, chairman of the Hillside Democratic Party, praised Johnson for his many years of selfless service to the community.
“Mr. Johnson is a true living pioneer and role model,” Salters told LocalSource in a Feb. 12 email. “His demonstrated dedication, perseverance and commitment to
keep us safe is an inspiration not only to fellow law enforcement personnel but to the Hillside community at large. I hope he is enjoying retirement life. My brother is a police officer and I know from his experiences, at times, it can
be a thankless, under-appreciated job. God Bless Calvin Johnson.”
Alston said the event will be a great opportunity for Hillside.
“The community can come together to honor the first black cop in Hillside,” Alston said. “Chief Panarese was excited. The HPD, FOP, PPA, elected officials and everyone will come and express how much he means to them and thank him, and to pay homage and respect for him. To me, he’s a hero. He’s a real hero.”
Panarese lauded Alston for the event.
“This day was long overdue,” Panarese said. “I’m glad that Tony came up with this. We had some great times and laughs. He is very loved by everybody who worked with him. He’s a special man, he really is. He’s a big bear with a heart of gold. That’s why we are here as police officers — it’s to help people. It’s to help citizens of the town, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Johnson said that the stories people share with him make all the difference.
“Those intimate stories, they really make a difference,” Johnson said. “It’s really powerful. It means a lot. You don’t know at the time how you’re impacting someone. It’s a good feeling, it’s really good. I told Tony that I’m just really humbled by the whole thing. I just can’t say it enough.”