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April 23, 2001

On the road of life

By Poul Olson


Charmayne Johnson has five tattoos, each symbolizing a defining moment in her life.

A peace dove recalls her years as a hippie, when she was an avid Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin fan. A spider and mouse remind her of personalities from former relationships. A butterfly corresponds to a period of awakening, while a sun reflects her sanguine view on life.

While the road of life has had many turns for Johnson, Yerkes’ first shuttle driver has maintained an enduring commitment to learning and self-improvement. On any given day, she’ll ferry as many as 100 people from the Main Station to the Emory campus, often engaging passengers about the meaning of life or sharing insight recently gleaned from the half-dozen self-help and horror books that she reads each month.

“I get to talk a lot with people in this job,” said Johnson, whose latest reading interests have been Maya Angelou’s Even the Stars Get Lonesome and A Spiritual Guide for the 21st Century. “I love to share my experiences and opinions with others and learn theirs as well.”

An Atlanta native, Johnson has led a life that mirrors her spirited personality. She helped found a women’s support group called EPOCH—Embracing Positive Opportunities Creating Hope—that focuses on life-changing issues. The 47-year-old Johnson also has held a litany of jobs over the years, including spending 10 years as an insulation installer and other stints as a teacher, EKG technician and sales clerk.

She reluctantly admitted, however, that her best job was her two years at Zoo Atlanta, where she drove the visitor train and worked with savannah animals. “I wanted to stay, but the money just
wasn’t good enough,” she said.

Recently experiencing a “spiritual awakening,” Johnson took an inventory of her interests and has been considering a career change, possibly into primate enrichment. “Right now, I’m content where I am,” she said, “but at some point, I’d like to do something different with my life.”

She said her dream job would be to work at a wildlife sanctuary. “I generally prefer animals to people,” she quipped.

In fact, her long-standing love of animals originally attracted her to Zoo Atlanta and ultimately to Yerkes. She spent a year as an animal care trainee before becoming the shuttle driver. For her own part, she has a cat, turtle, two hamsters, three gerbils and a raft of fish.

The hectic pace of driving the shuttle can be at times stressful. Johnson finds it particularly challenging and trying to get people to meetings on time and negotiate the University’s traffic

“The job has done a lot for my driving skills and my personal growth,” she said. “I’ve had to learn patience and tolerance.”

Fortunately, the radio provides a welcome divergence and helps to create a festive atmosphere in the van. “Someone recently suggested that I install a disco ball in the van and serve snacks,” she said, noting her particular affinity for world party music. “I love to see people get in the van and really like the music. They can always pick up on my mood from what I’m listening to.”

Fate likely honed Johnson’s love of music. She takes her name from the famous theme song “Charmaine,” written for the 1926 silent movie What Price Glory. People who share the unusual name even have their own web site at The music’s upbeat sounds capture the consummate optimism of Yerkes’ very own Charmayne.


Back to Emory Report April 23, 2001