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Resident helps others see past

"Go away," Sadie Johnson called to the woman walking past her house flicking cigarette ashes onto her tidy, well-manicured yard. "I don't want you here."

The woman ignores her and continues her walk down Fifth Street with the cigarette Mrs. Johnson loathes dangling between her fingers.

Carrying laundry she has just retrieved from the clothesline, Mrs. Johnson, 88, heads up the back steps of her home mumbling about "those school people" and their smoking habits.

She never wanted the school district's massive administration building in her otherwise residential neighborhood.

At a public hearing in March 1989, school officials learned just exactly what Mrs. Johnson thought of their plans to build a $12.5-million center behind her house.

"I say "No, No,'

" Mrs. Johnson said at the time. "And my neighbor next door has asked me to send you a vociferous "No' also."

But the mammoth gray building got built anyway on a lot that used to hold the old, red brick Largo High School. It was a structure Mrs. Johnson tried unsuccessfully to save from the wrecking ball.

All her life, she has been an active fighter for causes and people she cares about: preserving Largo's downtown brick streets and the old Largo Feed Store building, and promoting recreation programs for the city's young people.

For years, she has donated photographs of historical Largo to the library. Library staffers have copied, framed and hung 27 of them in the corridors for the public to enjoy.

"It was a shame to keep them hidden in the drawers back there," said Bonnie Potters, assistant to the library's collection manager.

The cost to the library was about $120.

At the library Friday afternoon, after attending the funeral of longtime friend Gordon Belcher, Mrs. Johnson gave the collection a critical review, pointing out to Potters and library assistant Carol Cortwright a couple of incorrect identities.

They promised to make the necessary changes.

"This was Largo's first drugstore," Mrs. Johnson said as she looked at a picture of a building near downtown around the turn of the century. "And this was the old City Hall. That's the bandstand behind it.

"Oh, I love this one (of the original West Coast Garage)," she said.

She also found photographs of people she remembered.

"That's William Belcher with his hat in his hand," she said. "And that's Dr. Bob (McMullen). He always said he hoped to live 1,000 years to see what Largo would be like."

Mrs. Johnson is not sure McMullen would like what's here today.

"Everything that was old Largo is gone," she said.

She bemoaned that Largo is growing too fast and recalled that the city government once went bankrupt.

"It was a time sort of like now, when we were expanding and spending too much money," she said.

Although she recently fell, hitting her head on a stair landing, Mrs. Johnson said she is feeling better every day. She gets impatient with people who urge her to be cautious, to get some rest.

"Yesterday I got out and drove my old car," she said. "It felt so good."

Mrs. Johnson came to Pinellas County with her family in a caravan of four cars. The year was 1925 and Largo had recently expanded to 8 square miles. The city had fewer than 1,000 residents.

As a young woman, she worked at a bank in downtown Clearwater until John S. Taylor persuaded her to work for him at the Taylor Fruit Packing Plant, which was at Seminole Boulevard and East Bay Drive where the clock tower and Largo Central Park now stand.

Later, she and her husband, Jack, bought their own citrus grove on Curlew Road.

In the 1940s, she got a job working for the city as an assistant to the manager. They called her the city clerk.

"I did a little bit of everything," she said Friday. As for the city clerk title: "They just called me that."

She retired in 1971.

A founder of the Greater Largo Historical Society, Mrs. Johnson was the principal author of Largo's only history book Largo .


. Then 'Til, which was a national bicentennial project in 1976. Among the tidbits in the book: Largo is named for now-defunct Lake Largo.

Mrs. Johnson is not through.

There's the old Largo Feed Store building now in Largo Central Park to be restored and her own family history to document. The papers and pictures are strewn across her dining room table waiting for her attention.

And one other thing.

"I want the city to put a plaque or something in Largo Central Park showing it was once the site of the old (county) fairgrounds," she said. "People are going to forget that."