Johnson brothers carry on JU founder’s legacy

KNOXVILLE— In 1857, Ashley S. Johnson founded the School of the Evangelists which is now known as Johnson University. Carrying the Johnson name comes with a great deal of responsibility.

Imagine being a part of Ashley Johnson’s family. Being a part of the Royal community at Johnson is one thing but actually being a Johnson descendant brings on another level of honor.

This is a reality for JUTN mail room supervisor, Kenny  and locksmith, Richard Johnson. Ashley Johnson was their great-grandfather’s brother. Both grew up in the rich history that surrounds Johnson.

“Being in the Ashley Johnson family carries a little bit of responsibility because you certainly don’t want to do anything that casts burden on the family name,” Kenny said.
In many ways, the brothers who grew up in the Kimberlin Heights community, have been shaped by the university and the legacy of their family.

“We had a great childhood,” Richard, the oldest of three brothers said. “We didn’t fight too much but we enjoyed playing together, the older I get the more I love them (his brothers).”

Kenny and Richard share memories and stories that were significant to both their childhoods.

Kenny Johnson, mailroom supervisor

In their younger days, the brothers attended Gap Creek Elementary. At the time Kenny was in the same grade as Karen Bligh, the daughter of one of the professors.

He developed a close friendship with Karen and remembers her as an important part of his childhood.

He recalled one particular time when Karen and her dad tried to persuade him to be in a play on campus.

“They were working on a play here and Karen was in it, I had reddish hair and freckles and she thought I’d be idea for a part in the play but at the time I was very shy,” he recalled. “Karen thought she could talk me into playing the part and her dad even came to the school and talked to my mom to see if she could convince me but it couldn’t be done.”

Although his memories with Karen seemed to be the highlight of his childhood memories, Kenny reminisced on stories his dad once told him about his grandfather.

Kenny started working on campus 8 and a half years ago and prior to that his grandfather worked around campus as a farm foreman many years ago.

“I remember one time of a tale my dad told me about a preacher boy almost drowning that my grandfather had to save,” Kenny said.”The tale went that my grandfather had to take a boat to go out and save him, the boy grabbed the boat in a panic and was about to pull it under. My grandfather said to the boy if you don’t settle down I’m going to knock you out with this oar.”

Along with many other memories, Richard remembers a time he helped his dad operate a theater in the community

“When I was about five my dad built a building for a theater to show movies right by our house,”Richard said. “In the community there was not much to do so it was a big community thing that everyone enjoyed. He’d get the posters and I’d hand him the tickets and the candy— I enjoyed it.”

Richard Johnson, plant services locksmith

Both Richard and Kenny Johnson didn’t plan on attending Johnson as an undergraduate, but they both eventually landed positions at the university.

“At the time, I didn’t feel like the Lord was calling me into any ministry work so I didn’t consider coming here,” Kenny said.”My impression of the school was narrowed to just being a minister, it wasn’t as broad then as it is now as far as what was offered here.”

Richard said that he regrets not attending Johnson.“God has been good and led me in a different direction, but what I’ve learned since I’ve been here is that I wish I had attended Johnson,” Richard said.

Both mentioned how the programs at the university have broadened and the number of faculty has grown. Kenny recalled the Florida expansion being a significant change during his time here.

Through his position as locksmith, Richard has developed relationships on campus and has observed the growth of the university in the process.

“There are a lot of positive things going on, I think the leadership here will continue to make necessary changes to make opportunities available to students in the future,” Richard said.

Richard views being the locksmith as more than just a job, he views it as an opportunity to serve the Johnson community.

“I enjoy being here because it’s not just a job, I feel like I’m helping Johnson serve the Lord here ,” he said.

Today Kenny Johnson is married and has two sons and three grandchildren. Richard Johnson is also married and has two children of his own and five grandchildren.Both plan to continue working for the university as long as possible and haven’t considered leaving any time soon.

Kenny can be found most days hard at work in the mail room, while Richard is hard at work in plant services on the Tennessee campus. Despite their busy schedules they still make time to stop by and talk as brothers and both continue to carry the Johnson name with honor.


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