Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Artist of Life

Sheila Johnson: Middleburg developer, Mystics owner, media mogul and mom Interview by Nora Maccoby

Equestrian Excellence Shelia and Paige Johnson with their golden retreiver in their riding barn at Salmandor Farm in Middleburg, Va.

Sheila Johnson is easily regarded as one of the most prominent and successful women in the world, known as a visionary, bridge builder and a transformative teacher. She is the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), author of the “Roland Method” of violin teaching and the first African-American woman to own stakes in three professional sports teams, including the Mystics, the female basketball wonder women of Washington. Her latest venture, The Salamander Inn & Spa, is poised to become Middleburg’s first upscale resort.

Johnson is also a great mom and wife. In person, she is warm, honest and relaxed with a great sense of humor. She is always the teacher, riffing back and forth with her students, always an artist of life.

A creator of music schools, television networks, philanthropy, Johnson’s works derive from her core belief that creative expression is essential to the development of leadership in a peaceful society. The Sheila Johnson School of Music in Amman, Jordan, teaches the language of music as a tool for healing transformation. “Young Strings in Action,” the all-string orchestra she found has toured in both the United Kingdom and Jordan and performs regularly at Children’s Hospital in Washington.

All the while, she was building BET, the network providing 24-hour news and entertainment for an African-American audience. Recently, while building she somehow found the time to get married again, to Judge William T. Newman.

Nor Maccoby, a former violin student of Johnson’s is now a gnostic scholar, an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter (“Buffalo Soldiers”, “Bongwater”) and co-founder of the non-profit energy literacy initiative, Nature’s Partners. Last month, she sat down with her mentor to discuss her incredible life.

Nora Maccoby: Tell us about your vision for the resort you want to build in Middleburg.
Shelia Johnson: I am building a five-star resort and spa. It will have a 27, 000 square foot spa, we’ll have mud treatments, pilates, yoga, a couple of tree-house spa rooms, an equestrian facility, tennis courts, walking, hiking and riding trails, cooking classes, and a state-of-the-art conference center. We’re five minutes away from Jack Nicklaus’ golf course. I think the resort will be large enough to meet the needs of corporate executives, or small enough for romantic couples to get away [for the weekend.] Yo Yo Ma has told me that he would love to come perform. We’re going to have themed weekends with speakers on various subjects. I want it to be a preventative health and healing place but I don’t want it to be really whacked-out and floating in the air. I’m hoping that the resort will be the gateway in helping the wine industry here, by doing the wine tastings. I want to give guests a quality setting, something that is first-class, yet not overwhelming. You’re not going to feel like you’re at the St. Regis or anything like that. It will just be a place where you can really let your hair down.

NM: You’ve got this incredible vision and it’s going to provide so much enjoyment for so many people.
SJ: I’ve saved it from a developer... Basically, it’s a weird situation because everyone thinks the resistance is coming from the town but it’s not. The town wants this. The retailers wanted it. They need the traffic. It’s the people who have just moved here [that have resisted.] I have to say that when I first moved here they put their claws into me. I threw this big gala and they just loved me and said I should buy this track of land just outside of town. So I did, and I said, let’s build a resort and call it an inn. It was a trap, they wanted me to buy the land and they didn’t think I was going to do anything with it. It’s not that I’m wrecking the land, I saved it from a developer who was going to put 200-plus homes on it. I’m putting 75 percent of it into a conservation easement. So now I’m doing a boundary adjustment to put the resort into the town, which means the town will get the tax dollars from the room revenue, giving it a flush of cash—over half a million dollars a year which they can use for all the improvements they need.

NM: They should be thanking you.
SJ: They are starting to realize it, but now they’re blaming all these cars that come through Middleburg on moi. But it’s the commuters, the blue collar workers who have to live in Winchester or West Virginia and work in town because there’s no other way for them to [commute.]

NM: You took the role of the president of the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS). Why did you do this and what does it mean to you?
SJ: Because my daughter’s a rider. I’ve never known a sport that can drain more money out of your bank account. I did it because of her interest and her passion and I have to say, I’ve enjoyed it, the ride has been great. It’s been making money because I’ve started to run it as a business, and I think the people in the horse industry have to understand that you’ve got to run shows as a business. Unfortunately even people within the industry do not support the horse shows—clients and parents who are wealthy and who really should be helping with the sponsorship. At some point the horse industry is going to hit a crossroads, and I’m not sure how long the WIHS will be able to stay at the MCI Center. The rent is horrendous.

NM: My earliest memories of you are in violin class. Bobby [Bob Johnson] would come in and out and you’d talk about your plans in radio, TV and cable. You were always working out your philosophy. You were going to change the world, and then you did. You are a visionary and you instilled that in us that desire to make the world better or create things that may not be here now. What makes someone a visionary?
I think you’re born with it, I really do. It has something to do with seeing beyond the present, seeing the whole picture as it is happening in the present, and seeing how it can blossom.

Paige Johnson

NM: All of your students have done very well.
Yes, it’s not so much that they continue to play an instrument, but that they’ve been very successful in their own careers. And I really believe that music is the foundation, because it touches them in a place where no one or nothing else can touch them. Our program taught organization, discipline and focus. We were like one big family. It was a learning process— from bowing and learning good stage manners to learning how to sit still. Because we had students from age five to eighteen, the bigger children taught the littler ones. We took it seriously, we were a professional top-notch group, and we played everything.

NM: Our group was called Young Strings in Action. You have a music school in Jordan how is that doing?
SJ: It is still doing very well. Two weeks ago was its twenty-fifth anniversary. Many of the same teachers I trained are still there. We traveled to Jordan and the State Department told us we couldn’t go because some of the students were Jewish. I thought that was the dumbest thing, I mean, the arts are the bridge of the universal language.

NM: When we got there we’d meet people and say, “Half the kids were Jewish, but the Jordanians embraced everyone of us as our brothers and sisters.”
The lines of communication completely opened up. A lot of the students stayed in Palestinian houses and had real dialogue and communication. It was really a phenomenal experience for these kids but we couldn’t go across the bridge into Israel, that was disappointing.

NM: But we played at the Dead Sea at that ancient temple…
SJ: Yes, the Temple of Artemis, for the Jerash festival, the oldest cultural festival in the Middle East. I think it was Queen Noor who started this festival and she would invite top groups from all over the world to perform. Remember, we practiced twenty-four hours, seven days a week? We had to get it all in order, but not only did they arrange everything, the king sent his plane, and the kids got paid.

NM: You also wrote a book about your teaching method.
The book is called “Strings in Action.” It was actually a string-teaching method that my teacher, Paul Rolland, had devised. He is the one who brought the Suzuki method into the country. He was given a grant from the Department of Education to come up with his own method, a half a million dollars, which created the Illinois String Research Project. It was all based on movement and natural ability to play the violin. It’s sort of complex but it works on every skill from playing the violin to balance to rhythmic skills. We were on tour in Europe and we would train teachers on how to teach this method. When he passed away from a heart attack. His publisher approached me to rewrite the method so teachers in the school system could use it.

NM: I think the process and the way that you teach really enhances the whole person. Have you ever thought about politics and diplomacy?
It’s really funny you should ask that question. I just went on the board of the Sorensen Institute, a non-partisan organization that gives young people leadership skills. I’m not saying that I’m going into politics but I am very happy that Tim Kaine was elected governor of Virginia. I helped get him elected and I’m coaching his operation. This is probably the closest I’ve been to politics on this level. Since I’m building this resort and spa here in Middleburg I’m of course involved in politics because any building projects you do will get you into politics with the county boards. It can be a very tricky game.

Sheila Johnson

NM: What advice would you give the Democrats over the next couple of years?
SJ: We’ve lost a lot of ground and the perception at the global level of the United States is not good. We have a lot of cleaning up to do. But the Democrats really need to focus on what their issues are going to be and how they’re going to reprioritize issues globally as well as in this country. It has become the “in” thing to solve other country’s problems rather than looking within, and we’ve got problems on every level. I think this is something that’s key for whoever runs for president. I think Mark Warner is going to run and I think he will be really good.

NM: You’re a newlywed. How does it feel?
SJ: It feels great. It takes a little getting used to (laughs). I’ve always been an independent person and for a period of time I wasn’t married. It’s a matter of striking a balance that has allowed me to keep doing what I’m doing, and be home too.

NM: Where did you and your husband meet?
SJ: Well, we actually met over thirty-some years ago. I wasn’t making enough money, so I was acting on the side. Bill was in a play with me and I was married at the time. Fast-forward and I go into the chambers to get my divorce and I think, I know this judge. My lawyer asks, “How well do you know him?” And I say I haven’t seen him in at least thirty years. So after it’s over, I say, “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?” He says, that I may. And I say, “do you remember me?” He said he did. Then I sent him an invitation to the Washington Horse Show to see if he’d show up with a guest and he came alone, so from that moment on…

NM: What qualities do you like best in him?
SJ: I can trust him. He’s brilliant. He’s very comfortable with himself and his career. I think he is probably one of the most honest people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s warm, he’s loving, adores me and I feel really safe with him. It’s a great feeling.

NM: Your daughter Paige is competing in the upper levels of jumping. Did she get you into horses or did you get her into horses?
SJ: She is the daughter I’ve always wanted. She is quick, headstrong and passionate in whatever she does. She has known from the very young age of six that she wanted to ride. So, for her seventh birthday, I bought her this little pony named Foxhollow Sailingstar and she’s still riding to this day. We have 25 horses on the farm.

NM: What is your son Brett doing these days?
SJ: He’s really a great actor. I think he’s very talented. He’s playing football now, first string varsity at Episcopal.

NW: How do you work out parenting with Bobby?
SJ: I’m with the kids most of the time. He had them over Thanksgiving.

NM: Let’s talk about the Mystics.
SJ: They’re a great team of women and I’m very excited about owning them. It’s the first time a woman has [owned] three sports teams, the Mystics, the Wizards and the Capitals. All the WNBA teams are under the NBA and have been inherited by men who own the NBA teams. Their focus is on men, not on the women, and they treat [the womens’ teams] like a step-child. The only way they can really thrive is by having separate ownership. My job is to separate my staff from the Wizards and build a new staff. I’m getting an entire sales and marketing team, I’m looking for an assistant coach and I’m still product testing a new mascot. We’ve got PR to help inform people about the Mystics Foundation because we have to reach out into the community. [The men’s NBA] are paid to go out in the community and are able to bring the TV cameras in. It’s like “Oh look, they’re feeding the homeless.” [But] they get paid to do it, it’s in their contract. Our women, have to make 11 charity appearances but they don’t get paid. They only make $45,000 a season. I am really having a fight now. They are going to start valuing the women as athletes. This is the one thing I have been furious about. I’m telling you this has got to change.

NM: What philanthropies are you most engaged in?
SJ: I’m most passionate about the welfare of children. They’re being abused on every level, from sexual abuse, to trafficking, to not having a great learning environment, to improper heath care. I’m worried about the impact of the media on their minds. I have given brick and mortar for educational institutions. I’ve formed an institute that is helping disadvantaged students who have gotten into college [learn to] assimilate better. Also, the performing arts, because I still believe that that stage is a way of reaching so many young people and getting them to express themselves. I have my own foundation and have gotten my children involved because I think [we] have been extraordinarily blessed with good fortune and it’s really important for them to learn to give back.


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