By Gail H. Marshall Brown, Ph.D.
From driving an 18-wheeler to provide for his family for 30 years to driving a sulky in harness racing (in retirement) for decades, Mississippi native Johnnie Lee Maynor is still winning.
Maynor recently celebrated what his family termed, “90 years young.” Also described as a family icon and legend, he celebrated this “significant” milestone with surprise visits from his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. He even received virtual visits from South Africa.
Not only did Maynor turn 90, but he and his wife Doris, a retired healthcare provider, also
were still blissful from the blessing of celebrating 72 years of marriage in April.
His friend Howard Gentry of 30 years, told T he Mississippi Link that he believes Maynor’s
longevity can be attributed to “good living.” Gentry, a local Nashville politician and former
athletic director at Tennessee State University, stated: “Every since I’ve known him, he has
lived on a farm – country living away from the city. He was always a healthy person. He trained his horses, he trained his dogs, he hunted and took care of his land, and so, he lived a good clean life. I am sure that has aided to his longevity. Also, he has an amazing wife. Of course, that can always make the difference.”
Gentry said both he and Maynor share a love for hunting and horses. “However, I only
rode for pleasure,” he said.
Many view the Maynors as a unique African-American couple.
After long successful professional careers, they took up a hobby that parlayed into successful sporting enjoyment: owning horses and becoming involved in harness horse racing.
One of his horses, HJ’s Missy, a $2500 gift from one of his daughters, during the summer of 2000, would go on to become “North America’s winningest juvenile in 2001,” according to Hoof B eats magazine, February 2002. HJ’s Missy “took 15 of 18 starts, with all but one of those wins coming with [the-then] 69-year-old Maynor in the sulky.”
HJ’s Missy was named after their dear friends, Harley and Jan Emerson, who helped the
Maynors get established in Illinois to compete in high stakes racing. The Emersons were
longtime horse breeders. The Maynors would spend their summer visiting them.
It was one of those visits that Johnnie Maynor saw and became fond of the horse that he would later describe as “the best horse I ever had.” The filly was highly
sought after by other owners but Maynor would never sell her because she was a gift from their daughter.
Prior to the Illinois circuit, according to Hoof B eats, Maynor’s “world of harness racing had
been limited to the fair racing in Philadelphia, Miss. and Fayetteville, Tenn.”
Gentry pointed out that although a number of African Americans are in the harness
racing industry, they are mostly jockeys and trainers. However, Maynor was trainer and owner.
“That was the difference,” Gentry said. “When I would go to races…, I did not see a lot of people that looked like me. The only thing that was my complexion were the horses (he chuckled).”
Other top-named horses the Maynors owned were “Dues Is Wild,” “Fast Track” and “Minor Boy.”
During a recent interview he stated, “Although people thought “HJ’s Missy” was my fastest
horse, it was actually Dues Is Wild. In the mid to late 90’s, he competed throughout the United States breaking records also,” Maynor said.
Today at age 90, the birthday boy, like his horses, is still a high spirited individual who loves to dance and shared some of his moves. In fact, during his birthday celebration, escorted by his wife, he danced into the party to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s tune, “Happy Birthday.”
He enjoys telling his history as a horseman and singing in the male chorus at his church.
Strong advocates of earning the best education possible, the Maynors are the proud parents of a large family of highly successful professional adult children and grandchildren.
Growing up, his children thought their father’s involvement with horses was “just a hobby” but because what he did was actually a sport, they say they now realize their father was “really a professional athlete.”
He learned on his own and from having mentors who did not look like him because there were none from his surrounding who had gone forth in the area harness horsemanship at that level.
This article was first published in the Mississippi Link