BASEBALL, BIRD DOGS AND BILL JOHNSON
BASEBALL, BIRD DOGS AND BILL JOHNSON
BY LORIE WOODWARD CANTU
Bill Johnson, owner of Bill Johnson and Associates Real Estate Co. in Bellville, became a real estate broker because of baseball and bird dogs. “Thank God for baseball and bird dogs,” Johnson, who also owns The Pecan Tree Kennel in Bellville, said. “My twin passions led me to the man who opened the door to real estate for me and ushered in a career I’ve enjoyed for almost 50 years.”
And the story goes like this….
In 1964, Johnson, the third generation to call Bellville home, left Austin County for Texas A&M University to pursue a marketing degree and play baseball on scholarship. He was a right-handed pitcher who could round the bases quickly enough to be a pinch runner, too. He played for legendary Coach Tom Chandler, who served as head coach for 26 years and in 1964 led the Aggies to the College World Series.
“Coach Chandler quickly realized I loved quail hunting as much as I loved baseball,” Johnson said. “Growing up in small town Texas in the 1950s, boys did three things for fun: we hunted, fished and played summer league baseball. Hunting was just part of who I was.”
While Johnson hunted deer, squirrels, rabbits and other game, bird and waterfowl hunting commanded a lot of his time and attention. His family was ideally located. Migrating dove passed through in the fall. Wild bobwhite quail were then-abundant in the rolling hills. The rich rice fields of Eagle Lake, which attracted ducks and geese for the winter, were less than an hour’s drive. In fact, Johnson and his father were the first to dig pits in the rice fields and place their decoys in close proximity, a hunting practice that became widespread.
Johnson’s dad was an avid outdoorsman regularly hunting in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas in an era when travel was much more difficult. He was also a gifted dog trainer. As word of his skill spread, South Texas ranches including King Ranch began sending their puppies to the Johnsons for their initial training.
Each ranch would send eight – 12 puppies at a time. When the pups had completed a certain level of training, the ranch family would come and choose its top prospects from the group. They would leave the rest with the Johnsons as payment for their time. The Johnsons would finish training those dogs and sell them or keep them for their own use.
“I was the feeder and the pooper scooper in our dog training operation,” Johnson, who has had bird dogs for 69 of his 71 years, said. “I wanted to move up the ladder, but when I looked over my shoulder there was no one coming up behind me because I was an only child. I kept that job for a long time.”
All those hours in the kennels taught Johnson how to work hard and how to work with dogs and people. Coach Chandler noticed and offered to introduce Johnson to his neighbor, M.G. Perkins, an avid bird hunter. Johnson went to the dinner meeting unaware that Perkins was also the largest homebuilder in Brazos County as well as co-owner of Woodson Real Estate, a residential company based in Bryan, and Woodson Lumber Company, a regional lumber and hardware store chain.
Perkins, who maintained a kennel with 25-30 bird dogs, took a liking to the young man and offered him the opportunity to train some of his puppies.
“He told me that he’d take me hunting—and pay me,” Johnson said. “At that time, I’d never heard a better deal.”
As the time for Johnson’s graduation approached, Perkins called the young man into his office to give Johnson his graduation present, an all-expense paid three-day quail hunting trip to the El Sauz Division of King Ranch complete with a film crew to capture the action. Perkins also used the visit to inquire about Johnson’s future plans.
“When I got to A&M my plan was to get a degree and then figure out the rest,” Johnson said.
At the time of the conversation, Johnson was being recruited by the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago White Sox and interviewing for corporate sales jobs with giants like Shell Oil.
Perkins suggested Johnson come to work at Woodson Real Estate. To sweeten the deal, Perkins threw in an opportunity to live on his 72-acre farm and continue working with his dogs. Johnson was in his fifth year of college and had married his high school sweetheart, Phyllis Ann Deutrich Johnson, after she completed her degree at Southwest Texas State University.
“I never really saw myself as a suit-and-tie guy for a corporation,” Johnson said. “And, while now I wish I had given pro ball a shot, it seemed too short-lived and unstable. Learning the real estate business at Woodson seemed like a mature, responsible choice. It’s one that I’ve never regretted.”
He spent three years learning the ropes of residential real estate, but, by 1970, Johnson was ready to expand into ranch real estate and strike out on his own. He and Phyllis returned to Bellville where he founded the Bill Johnson and Associates Real Estate and the Pecan Tree Kennel simultaneously.
Johnson’s real estate company and his kennel began as one-man operations. He was the man.
“I waited for the sun to rise so I could start and I worked until the moon stopped me—seven days a week,” Johnson said. “Even today, I get up about 5:00 a.m. and approach the day with one gear—wide open. Whatever happens in a day happens and I can go to bed contented because I’ve made the most of the time I’ve been given.”
Johnson ran the real estate company out of his home and the kennel on land leased from a friend’s father. The first dog pen was built under a pecan tree giving the kennel its name. It quickly grew requiring its own property. Johnson acquired 122-acres of prime native quail habitat and built a state-of-the-art facility equipped for boarding, breeding and training bird dogs. Today, the staff routinely works with English Pointers, English Setters, Brittany Spaniels, German Shorthair Pointers, and Boykin Spaniels.
As he quickly discovered, Johnson’s seemingly disparate businesses are complementary.
“If clients can spend $25,000 on five bird dogs, it is likely they are affluent enough to invest in country property,” Johnson said. “And, if they purchase country property, it’s likely that they enjoy being outdoors and would benefit from investing in a good dog or two.”
His first transaction at his new company reinforced the hand-in-glove relationship of hunting and land ownership in Texas. Johnson was asked to sell a 306-acre property ranch near Cat Springs on the San Bernard River. He’d grown up hunting there.
“I had mixed emotions,” Johnson said. “If I sold it, I’d lose the chance to hunt on land I’d grown to love. If I didn’t sell it, someone else would have.”
He went to visit the landowner, took the listing details down on a paper sack, and sold the property within two weeks. He’s since sold the property two more times. The current owner allows him to hunt it again.
“In the end, it worked out just right,” Johnson said.
As the two businesses grew, Johnson also began guiding hunts. In the beginning he worked for single clients, generally businessmen out of Houston, then he struck a deal with the Fitzsimons family. They own the historic San Pedro Ranch in Dimmit County, one of Texas’ prime locations for huge native deer and wild quail. He provided dogs and guiding services in exchange for the opportunity to harvest mature whitetails. For 20 years, he was the ranch’s primary quail guide. He retired from guiding in 2014.
“I hunted with so many great people there—Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Jack Nicklaus, Tommy Lee Jones, and David K. Langford—just to name a few,” Johnson said. “Those experiences and relationships turned into referrals. All business is a relationship business and I’ve been blessed with good ones.”
COUNTRY REAL ESTATE
Real estate is also about location. Austin County is an exceptional one. It’s a rural county with a population of about 29,000—and it’s located about 60 miles northwestof Houston, America’s fourth largest city. The agency operates out of Bellville, which has about 4,000 residents. This creates a unique dynamic of a small town business with a big city clientele.
“We’re a country agency,” Johnson said. “While we’ve sold property all over Texas, we focus our efforts on Austin County and its five neighbors: Washington, Fayette, Colorado, Waller and Fort Bend counties. To succeed, we have to be like the general practitioner at the local hospital—able to do it all.”
And they do: residential, commercial and ranch real estate. Last year, as an example, the firm’s eight full-time and six part-time agents sold $20 million in commercial real estate on the I-10 corridor.
It is rural properties, though, especially those ranging in size from 50 acres – 300 acres that ensure a steady stream of buyers and sellers.
“Houston families come to us searching for weekend places where they can give their children a taste of Mother Nature,” Johnson said. “It’s wonderful because, in my opinion, if you don’t have a little country in your background then you have a void in your life whether you know it or not.”
But time marches forward. The children grow up, head up to college and establish lives in distant places. To be more accessible to everyone, the family decides the getaway should be in the mountains or on a coast, so they decide to sell the country place in Central Texas. Generally, it is purchased by another young Houston family—and the cycle continues.
“I tell my agents all the time, we’re blessed to work in Austin and Washington counties,” Johnson said. “Our location, our supply of clientele and the growing demand for outdoor experiences makes our area very unique. Prices in our area stay steady even when factors such as dropping oil prices affect the real estate market in other parts of the state.”
Of course, a country real estate agency wouldn’t be complete without country wisdom born of experience.
“I have a simple philosophy,” Johnson said. “I tell my agents, ‘If you will advise everybody who is seeking your advice just like you would advise your son or daughter, you will reap a harvest of success.’ A father is going to advise his children as correctly as he can and if you advise people with that same care it’s hard to make a mistake.”
CONTINUING A FAMILY TRADITION.....
By choosing to make Bellville their home, Bill and Phyllis Johnson continued the family tradition of Austin County residency. They raised their three children: Jan, Mary and Ty in Bellville on ball fields and in the outdoors.
Today, the Johnsons live on the family home place in a home built in circa 1890s. Its ceilings rise to 13-feet and its windows and doors are situated to catch the breeze. Gutters that are up to 18-inches wide and built into the wood framing are sturdy enough to allow a man to walk on them.
“Our house has an old-style that fits our lifestyle,” Johnson said. “Technology is helpful, but I still prefer to sit down with people and look them in the eye and really talk.”
These days, his family enjoys returning to the farm and staying in the guest house they’ve dubbed “Tha’ Shed.” It gives the children and the grandchildren a chance to get away from their fast-paced city lives, The Johnson children all followed their mother, who spent her career as a medical technologist, into the medical field. Jan, a former pharmaceutical sales rep, and her husband, Chris Underbrink, come from Houston with their daughters, Peyton, Paige and Parker. Mary, a pharmacist, and her husband, Scott Kuharski, arrive from Cedar Park with daughter Ryan and son Luke. Ty, an anesthesiologist, comes home from The Woodlands.
“The kids and grandkids all love to piddle with dogs, enjoy deer hunting, and dove shooting—I think they’re all on the right track for a good life,” Johnson said.
BILL JOHNSON’S STORIED CAREER.....
Over his career, Johnson has collected more than his fair share of stories.
There was the time one of Johnson’s clients wanted to buy an adjoining property. Johnson had to coax reclusive potential sellers from their home by leaving half-gallons of Blue Bell ice cream on their front yard gate post. This went on so long that the weather turned cold and Johnson began leaving smoked sausage links instead. Finally, after months of gifts, the 90-year-old owner decided Johnson was trustworthy enough to speak to and met him on the porch, but refused to sell his 68-acre home place.
The saga stretched over a year and ended with a sale, but not before a large group of relatives descended on the home place just prior to the closing. The elderly couple had passed away leaving behind a rumor that they had hidden money in their home. As the family members sifted through the stacks of newspaper the couple had accumulated through the years, they found $25,000 in $100 bills stuffed between the pages. Johnson acted as a ringmaster at the family circus and ensured the money went to the couple’s special needs son.
But there is only one of Johnson’s real estate adventures that made the Houston Chronicle, The Eyes of Texas, and 60 Minutes. He had clients from Houston who were looking for a 300-acre property with an existing high-end home. Their name was Smith. Over the course of several months, he showed them numerous properties but the homes never measured up.
Finally, an old rancher contacted Johnson about selling his family’s property. It didn’t have a fine home or any improvements, but it did have a showplace hill covered with bluebonnets and Indian blankets that provided a 360⁰ panoramic view of the entire countryside. It was an ideal home site, so Johnson suggested the Smiths come take a look.
The Smiths saw the potential of the property and made a full price offer. Johnson returned home only to wake up at 1:00 a.m. in a cold sweat because he had forgotten to mention that there was a one-acre cemetery with a perpetual ingress/egress easement within 100 yards of the potential home site. He thought it might be a deal breaker.
The next day the Smiths met him at the property to assess the situation. Johnson made his way into the cemetery that was in an overgrown yaupon thicket. He uncovered the first tombstone. The surname was Smith. He uncovered the second tombstone. It, too, was Smith.
“I told the buyers, ‘You probably should’ve just inherited this,’” Johnson said.
Everyone played it off as a strange coincidence because the property had been in the sellers’ family since 1953 and they had purchased it from an African-American family who had acquired it in 1906. Plus, the potential buyer was reared in Coleman County in west Texas.
The couple decided to purchase the property despite the presence of the cemetery. Several months later, the Smiths’ curiosity got the best of them and they hired a genealogist. When they received the report, they discovered the Smiths who were interred in the cemetery had purchased the property in 1853 and lived there until 1906 when they sold it and returned to Coleman County. The original owners were the buyer’s great-great-grandparents.
“I became somewhat of a hero after my mistake had almost made me a goat,” Johnson said. “This story captured the hearts of people everywhere and got a whole lot of media attention.”
Eventually, Johnson helped the Smiths acquire a total of 1,000 acres, which they held for many years. When they decided to move, Johnson helped them sell it.