Thomas Woodrow “Tommy Derr” Johnson, 80, crossed the sandbar on January 5th, 2023 at ECU Health Medical Center in Greenville, NC after a short illness.
Tommy was born March 30, 1943 in Norfolk, Virginia, the first of three children to Ralph Woodrow and Elsie McPhee Johnson. His younger sisters Vivian and Kathy would follow after. Tommy grew up on Colington Island with his sisters and cousins (of which he had many) and spent his childhood fishing with his father and uncles. Being the oldest, Tommy could be known to pick on his sisters but he loved them more than he would admit. He held a special bond with his baby sister Kathy. During his teenage years, he chose to leave school to pursue commercial fishing full-time and spent many, many years commandeering boats up and down the Outer Banks.
Fishing was Tommy’s life. For nearly 70 years, he spent the majority of his time beach “seine” fishing with a truck & dory and whatever hands he could get. Of those hands, he spent many years teaching & passing along his knowledge and experience of his craft to many cousins, nieces, nephews and scallywags along the way. He also loved gillnet fishing in the Sound and crabbed & shrimped for fun with family recreationally. When not fishing for a living, he spent many a day hanging and mending nets, working on boats, gear or docks. Even well into his seventies, Tommy had dreams to go on one last fishing trip.
Tommy sold most of his catch to the local Colington community, mostly to Billy Beasley, with whom he had a lifelong kinship & friendship with over their love of the Waterman life. He forged many lifelong relationships with other fishermen; if your family worked on the water, they probably knew Tommy Derr. If you fished, he wanted to know all about how you fished, where you fished, what you caught, if it was legal (and he always promised not to tell). He loved cooking with his catch and became quite the chef in his family for his oyster dressing.
Tommy met the mother of his children Patricia Brown in Norfolk, VA when he was 26, and they married in Kitty Hawk on June 25th, 1971. Their son, Thomas Scott ‘Scottie’, named after his father, was born that year. their second son, Darryl Craig, who predeceased his parents, in 1973, and their only daughter, Jennifer Ann ‘Jenni’, in 1975. With his family now complete, Tommy continued fishing and taught his children his trade (like his father and his father’s father before him), which they also learned to love along with him. Even with the long hours brought by commercial fishing, Tommy still had time to pursue one of his favorite pastimes: whittling. Tommy had a passion for carving ducks and building miniature boats and displayed them around his house with pride along with ones he’d bought among fellow carvers. Tommy also had a love for vinyl records, and at
the time of his passing, had a collection of well over three hundred albums. His collection included many albums and artists from the 1930s to the 1970s, but his favorites included Charlie Pride, George Jones, and Fats Domino, whom he saw twice at the Nags Head Casino and met once. He loved collecting antique bottles that he caught while fishing, and combing beaches for conch shells after storms.
Tommy unofficially retired in 2012, when the decades of hauling net, deboning fish and shucking oysters caught up to him. With his new-found free time, he mastered his art of cultivating his garden and turned his entire front yard into his new planters plot. He was known for his giant tomato plants he grew in porcelain bathtubs, the beautiful tomatoes he used in making his famous spaghetti sauce. Not only did he grow sustainable vegetables but he grew the tallest, most beautiful Zennia flowers out front of his house and he collected the seeds yearly to plant for the following season. He also became somewhat of an eccentric and displayed many interesting statues in his yard.
Tommy was kind-hearted and would do anything he could to help people. If he couldn’t help you, he’d help you find a way to get what you needed or connect you to one of his many friends who could help you. He loved making people laugh, and loved to tell jokes, though he usually couldn’t get through his own jokes before laughing. He loved to see people smiling and loved to hear their laughter, and most of all, loved to see people happy. We can’t forget how he loved practical jokes and pranks. He especially loved his Fart Machine and was deeply saddened when its batteries died shortly.
Tommy was an amazing storyteller and loved to tell stories. Recollections about his days fishing on the beach & sound, funny stories of things he and his buddies did while drinking, memories from his childhood (the good, the bad, and the terrible)—he loved to tell it all. And he loved, loved, loved to gossip. Anyone close to him knows he couldn’t keep anything in and he couldn’t wait to stir the pot.
Tommy loved his family, and loved the friends he considered family. He even loved the family and friends who got on his nerves. One of the ways he showed his love was through food—he always wanted to feed everyone. If you spent much time with him, you know he always wanted to cook for you, buy you food or prepare meals with you. Many people can recount taking home plates and plates of leftovers because Tommy simply insisted he “couldn’t eat all this food.” He will be deeply missed. Tommy is preceded in death by his father and beloved mother,, Ralph and Elsie Johnson, his son Darryl, and beloved niece Colleen Roberts-Hill.
Surviving Tommy are his ex-wife Patricia Brown Dudley of Norfolk, VA; son Thomas “Scottie” Johnson of Norfolk, VA; daughter, Jennifer “Jenni” Johnson Camden (Ken) of Gastonia, NC; sisters Kathy Johnson Montague of Wanchese, NC and Vivian Johnson Wentz of Colington. Grandchildren Taylor “Grant” Midgett (Selin), Logan Midgett, Dylan Johnson, and Bailey Camden; great-grandchildren Brody Midgett Speaks and Evelynn Midgett; a hoard of nieces and nephews that he loved wholeheartedly and shared many memories; life-long friends Eddie ‘FishDuck’ and Mitzi Reber; and countless other family members and close friends that he cherished.
The family will hold a graveside service at the Willis Tillett Family Cemetery in Nags Head Woods on Sunday, January 14th at 2 P.M. A celebration of Tommy’s life will follow at Chris and Jessica Merritt’s home in Colington. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you go fishing or on a treasure hunt in Tommy’s honor. Condolences may be shared at gallopfuneralservices.com.