For nearly 14 years, Rhonda Johnson has been a fixture in the Rehoboth Beach area, keeping herself and customers happy at Vernon Powell Shoes.
A loveable, grandmotherly figure to her coworkers, Johnson has worked at all three of The Athlete/VP Shoes stores, first at the location in downtown Rehoboth Beach, then at The Athlete store in Tanger Outlets and now at the new VP Shoes store.
Johnson has been with the company continuously since 1990. She began her time with VP from 1980 until 1986 when she and her husband, Willis, moved to Baltimore for four years, before coming back full-time.
“I was working in Salisbury, Maryland, at a company called Hess Apparel in the old mall. Vernon Powell was across the hallway and it was a shoe store. I kind of became friends with some of the people there and thought I would like to work there,” she said.
Johnson has been married for 27 years to the man she affectionately calls “Bubby.”
“His parents gave him the nickname ‘Bubby’ when, years ago, his father was not well and he was going into the hospital. He saw him, he said, ‘Bubby, Bubby, I’m so glad you’re here!’”
“We met at the Royal Exchange Pub in Salisbury, Maryland, the local watering hole, back in 1981. We were married in 1983,” she said.
Johnson is a lifelong resident of Delmarva, born near Denton, Md. and a graduate of North Caroline High School. She said she’s never given any thought to leaving the area.
“I just love the Eastern Shore. I love it. I don’t need to go anywhere. We used to travel, travel, travel. Been to Europe several times. We just thoroughly enjoyed it. But now this is where we live and there’s no place like Lewes,” she said. ‘We just love it here.”
Johnson’s start with the company included buying handbags and other items, a job that included traveling to New York City with then-President Phil Wright.
She first came to coastal Delaware after taking a trip to the beach when she and her husband, a now-retired golf professional, were living in Baltimore.
“My husband was coming back to open up Nutters Crossing golf course for Tom Ruark and we came to Salisbury. We had an RV and we decided to come to the beach and we stayed six weeks.
“We were driving around and Willis said, ‘Oh, I could live here.’ We kind of scoped things out, I made a phone call to Salisbury, because Phil had the store on the Avenue at the time, and told them I was looking for a job,” Johnson said.
She eventually formed the nucleus of the group that would run the Rehoboth store for much of the next decade with manager Dave Trader and co-worker and avid runner Dick Hipp.
In the mid-2000s Johnson became manager when Trader left the store, a job she didn’t initially want.
“They came to me and wanted me to do it right away; I wasn’t really interested. I didn’t know if I really wanted to do it. I said I would give it a try and I’m glad I did,” she said.
This past November, Johnson took over at the new VP Shoes store on Route 1.
“This is sort of like the old original Vernon Powell down on the Avenue. The Athlete was strictly athletic; that was a bit different for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all those years. Leaving that to come back to this, it’s been a bit different learning the product again,” she said.
When asked what has kept her going with the company so long, Johnson said the family atmosphere and environment fostered by VP’s owners, the Wright family. “They know you by name and they stand behind you 100 percent. They are just super, super people to work for,” she said.