White Sulphur Springs community remembers Katherine Coleman Johnson

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, WV (WOAY) – NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose life was portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures, died on Monday at the age of 101.

Johnson was a West Virginia native who grew up in White Sulphur Springs. She went on to become part of the team that sent the first American astronaut into a successful orbit around Earth. 

However, those in White Sulphur Springs, like City Manager Lloyd Haynes, will remember her for her accomplishments but also for her kindness and the way she could light up a room.

“She was very very down-to-earth,” Haynes said. “In talking to her, she wanted to know everything about you. She never pointed her finger at herself. She always wanted to highlight everyone else around her, her family. She highlighted also the City of White Sulphur Springs.”

Now, the City of White Sulphur Springs highlights her right back.

But for a long time, she was a hidden figure as many did not know about her or that she was from White Sulphur until much later in her life.

Once she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama and the book and movie buzz began, Haynes along with Tom Ambrose, the president of the board of trustees for the city’s library,  got to work to make sure she was honored with signage and a library dedication. 

“One of our challenges is to assure that we carry on this inspirational message that children know there are great things that are possible, and we pay honor to her incredible life,” Ambrose said.

The road leading up to the library is now called Katherine Coleman Way. The library is now inside the Katherine Coleman Johnson Building, and there is a community center inside named after her father, Joshua Coleman, a well-known handyman.

Johnson visited White Sulphur Springs in 2017 for the library dedication. They say despite her fame and accolades, she never forgot where she came from. 

“She’s a real asset for our area, a real asset for the black community, the white community and the entire world,” Haynes said. 

Johnson could not attend public high school in White Sulphur Springs because she was African-American, so her parents made arrangements for her to attend school in Institute where she then went on to study at West Virginia State.

She worked for NASA up until she retired in the 1980s.

“Individuals like that, you just never want it to be over,” Ambrose said. “You know that the time comes, and so I just feel incredible fortunate just to have been touched by her and her wonderful family.”

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Anna Saunders is a weekend reporter for WOAY. With a diploma from Princeton Senior High School and a mother from Fayette County, she is no stranger to the area. She received a degree in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and wanted to return home to start her career as a reporter.