Seeds of Generosity: One Man Inspires a Generation to Give Back
Certain individuals leave a legacy that seems larger than life itself. So it was with James “Jim” T. Johnson, Sr. of Ahoskie, North Carolina. The provisions he left behind recently allowed his children to make a record-breaking gift to Chowan University toward the scholarship in his name. His true legacy, however, comes from the life he led. The lessons etched deeply on the hearts and minds of his children, his grandchildren, seemingly everyone he encountered, were taught not with words, but by the quiet example of the way he engaged with the world on a daily basis.
The strength of that legacy is evident in his children. Jim’s son Jamie, also of Ahoskie, radiates energy and charm. As small talk turns toward the subject of his father, however, Jamie’s eyes fill with love and his voice falters. In the silence that falls while he collects himself, a world of emotion is expressed. The connection to Jim is palpable, powerful, and real.
“I think he was really genuinely generous,” Jamie begins. “He did well with his business, but he always could relate to the dirt farmer and the person that came from nothing, basically.”
Indeed, Jim understood the consequences of lack. Born May 9, 1922, in Scotland Neck, he was the son of the late Hugh and Ruby Tillery Johnson. Although Jim’s early years were spent in Scotland Neck, the loss of the family farm in the Great Depression resulted in a family move to Raleigh where he later graduated from N.B. Broughton.
“My dad was standing with his family on the town square in Scotland Neck where they were auctioning off the family possessions,” Jamie says. “I think Daddy never forgot what he could have been if he had not worked hard and had the opportunity to go to a good school.”
According to Jamie, his father was not unlike many others that might have had opportunities from families in that “Greatest Generation” because, as he notes, “There are a lot of people that had that drive.” Yet the opportunity for personal growth and good education are key components of improving one’s circumstances. Which is exactly why Johnson’s family feels the scholarship in his name is so appropriate.
The James “Jim” T. Johnson, Sr. Scholarship Endowment Fund was initiated at Chowan University in 2008 shortly after Jim’s death by gifts from family and friends, led by Bynum Brown of Murfreesboro. The permanently endowed scholarship provides financial assistance to a worthy fulltime student, with preference given to residents of Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton counties.
“I think this scholarship at Chowan fits in with his personality, because he gave all his kids opportunities to have an education from nice schools,” Jamie says. “So many people that live in this area don’t have that opportunity. Now with all the improvements going on, and with Chowan sitting right here in the backyard, why not choose something that’s local?”
Jim’s first love was farming, and he had a deep love for eastern North Carolina. He graduated from North Carolina State College in 1947, completing his degree after an interruption to serve in World War II. Upon graduation, he returned to Scotland Neck and began farming. He was also a creative entrepreneur whose vivid ideas led to successful business ventures that included nursing homes, restaurants, LP gas distribution, Ace Hardware and other endeavors in Scotland Neck and Ahoskie areas.
Jim’s son, Hugh, of Hawaii, suggested the scholarship gift and there was immediate agreement from siblings Howard Evans Johnson, of Ahoskie, Mandy Johnson, of Morehead City, and Katy Lewis, of Scotland Neck. “This three county region is where Daddy made his living and his life. Why not give it back to serve those same three counties?” Jamie adds.
“Say your prayers before you go to bed; brush your teeth; thank the good Lord; that’s sort of life in the South,” says Jamie. “I could see so many things my dad lived that were Christian values on a daily basis, as opposed to just talking about it. There are a lot of people that can play the game, but you can tell when there’s real meaning behind it, and my dad was a genuine gentleman and friend to lots of people.”
It’s clear that there are few regrets or words left unsaid between Jim and his children. Yet Jamie mentions one thing he would have done differently. “If we had it to do over again, we would have done some more giving while he was alive. I think people sometimes, my dad included, want to make sure their family is going to have enough to live on,” he explains. “So they just hang onto everything, then leave something in a will for somebody. I realize now that he could have given more away while he was living and still have remained comfortable and still have done what he wanted to for his own family. I think that’s something people miss out on. Give something away now, while you can see the benefits.”
In November, the family will have an opportunity to meet the first recipient of the scholarship at Chowan’s Scholarship Luncheon. They will have some advice to share on behalf of their father. “I think Daddy would tell them not to miss a single opportunity,” Jamie says. “Be involved, not just scholastically. Be involved in the school and be involved in the community. Take advantage of what you’ve been given. Work hard, play hard. And give something back.”