Clifton E. Johnson, a Charlotte lawyer and the first African American named senior associate judge of the N.C. Court of Appeals, died Thursday. He was 67.

Friends said Johnson appeared to be in good health and was attending a conference in Asheville when he became suddenly ill. The Buncombe County medical examiner told Thursday night that he could not confirm a cause of death but said the case was consistent with a heart attack.

Friends and associates in Charlotte were stunned.

Joe Allison, a retired IBM employee, said he regularly played golf with Johnson, most recently on Monday.

“He was outgoing. He loved sports,” Allison said. “I think golf was one of his passions.”

Spencer Thompson, another longtime friend, said he and Johnson were both members of Charlotte Golfing Seniors, a golf club for African American couples. They also shared a love for local politics. Johnson was active in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus.

“He was an outstanding individual,” Thompson said. “He knew the law.”

Born Dec. 9, 1941, in Martin County, Johnson earned undergraduate and law degrees from N.C. Central University.

He was the first African American lawyer in North Carolina to be appointed an assistant prosecutor, and in 1969 he was appointed district judge, a first for blacks in Mecklenburg County. He later became the first person of color to serve as chief judge of District Court and retired from the Court of Appeals in 1996 as senior associate judge, the first African American to achieve that position.

Former N.C. Superior Court Judge Shirley Fulton said she had known Johnson for more than 30 years.

He was a great guy,” she said. “You hear that about some people, but Cliff was really a great guy. He was the kind to help people. If you asked him to do something for you, he did it.”

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