Dorthy Loretta Johnson LeVels was born on May 9, 1945 in Pocatello, Idaho, to Pompie and Nellie Johnson, who had originally migrated from Georgia. After living a life filled with light and love, Dorthy transitioned to her heavenly home peacefully on Thursday, April 13, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.
In her formative years, Dorthy attended Bonneville Elementary School, Franklin Junior High, and Pocatello Senior-High School. The youngest of three boys and three girls, she grew up in a well-respected and close knit-family, her parents being founding members of Pocatello’s oldest black church, Bethel Baptist.
While attending college at Idaho State University in Pocatello, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Education, Dorthy became a semi-finalist in the 1964 Miss USA pageant after winning the title of “Miss Idaho.” She was the pageant’s first African- American semi-finalist and the first African-American beauty queen to represent the state of Idaho. At the time of her selection, the United States was embroiled in racial tensions. Just one month before, the 1964 Civil Rights Act had just been signed and shortly afterwards three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. Tens of thousands of blacks in the South had yet to win the right to vote. Recognizing the irony of Dorthy’s remarkable achievement, one Time Magazine reporter was inspired to dub her “a pretty paradox.”
Painfully shy, Dorthy worked as a telephone operator while in college, and her mother had encouraged her to enter the pageant to overcome her shyness. But when the lovely co-ed won the title of “Miss. Idaho,” her father initially refused to allow her to travel to Miami Beach, Florida. Pompie, however, did not want his sheltered daughter exposed to the indignities of Southern racism. Yet Dorthy faced indignities at home in Pocatello.
In previous years, the Miss Idaho winners received clothes and airfare from the state or local businesses to attend the pageant, but Dorthy received nothing. Recognizing that his daughter would face challenges because of her race in Idaho and across the nation, and with lobbying from Nellie, Pompie relented and surprised his daughter with four perfectly fitting outfits to wear while she competed in Miami. During the 12-day pageant, to her dismay, Dorthy was constantly followed by the press, and she was amused by whites who seemed surprised to find out she spoke fluent English and was not a foreigner.
After the pageant Dorthy was invited to serve as a summer intern at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. She later became an award-winning educator with the Los Angeles Unified School District. During her 40-year tenure, Dorthy served at several elementary schools, including Loren Miller, McKinley Avenue, White Point, Ambler and Carson Street, eventually becoming a Mentor Teacher. She received a Los Angeles Reading Association’s Teacher of the Year in 1992, was listed in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, and was nominated for the Disney Teacher of the Year Award in 2001.
After her retirement from LAUSD in 2009, Dorthy cultivated her many artistic talents including drawing, painting, and writing. She developed an original card line, God’s Dot (Dot being a fond nickname for Dorthy). The cards were treasured by friends and family who eagerly purchased them but were reluctant to part with them because of their unique beauty. She was also known for her skilled hand at calligraphy.
Dorthy was originally diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and told she had six months to live. However, through her faith, indomitable spirit, and the love of her family and friends, she fought the battle for 13 years and inspired others with her testimonials.
Dorthy was married to her high school sweetheart Robert Aaron LeVels for 45 wonderful years. To their union, one daughter Mia Pierre-Jacques (Jean) was born, and the two enjoyed spending time with grandchildren Micah and Jolie.
She leaves four siblings and a host of nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews to mourn her loss, including: Brother P. Louis Johnson, Jr, and his daughters Tamara Mahoney and Karen Johnson and grandsons Christopher and Adam; Brother Robert Johnson, Sr. and his sons Robert Johnson, Jr. (Karani), Kenneth Johnson (Celeste), and Ronald Johnson (Joy) and grandchildren Devin, Katherine, Alexandra, and Jacqueline; Sister Gloria Peoples and her son Randy Peoples (Gail); Sister Nellie Chaisson and her children Skip Chaisson (Stephanie) and Annette Chaisson and grandchildren Gianna, Brandon and Sophia; Nephew David Johnson, Jr., son of brother David Johnson, Sr. who preceded her in death, and his sons David (Holly), Terrence, and Tierre.
Dorthy’s memory will also be cherished by her many friends, students, co-workers and church members.
Graveside services will be held Tuesday, April 25, at 2 pm in the Mountain View Cemetery, Pocatello. Family will receive friends from 1-1:45 pm Tuesday in the Cornelison Funeral Home, 431 N. 15th Ave., Pocatello. Condolences may be sent to the family online at www.cornelisonfh.com