Donor Spotlight: Dwight Johnson


By Samantha Wagner

This article appeared originally in the fall 2021 issue of Frontiers Magazine


The youngest of five, from rural Chesterfield, S.C., Dwight Johnson grew up in a time when not everyone went to college.

“My father was a self-taught man with no diploma, college or otherwise, to his name” he explains. “He was well-read and well-educated, but he never graduated from anywhere.

” Dwight remembers that his father exhausted every resource their one-room schoolhouse had to offer, but educational opportunities in the late 1800s were limited. Still, the elder Mr. Johnson believed in the power of education and the importance of completing a college degree. He was determined that his children not only attend a college or university but also graduate with their degrees.

That singular focus would encourage all five children to obtain degrees and would establish a family tradition of education. The first step in that journey, however, took place at a school 120 miles due west from the family farm called Spartanburg Methodist College.

Dwight’s sister, Edith, the oldest of the five, was the first to attend SMC, then

Spartanburg Methodist Junior College. One of nine in her high school senior class, she and another young woman were invited to tour the residential campus with their school district’s superintendent C. R. Griffin - an alumnus of Spartanburg Methodist College when it was known as Textile Industrial Institute. Dwight’s father also accompanied the two ladies, and the group was greeted on campus by Dr. Burgess, the president of the College at the time. The tour went well, and the school’s emphasis on helping students thrive was evident. For a small, rural family, however, money was a concern.

“I remember that Dr. Burgess told my father in 1952 that if Daddy could find a way to get his kids to the college, then Dr. Burgess would not send them away for lack of money,” Johnson said.

Edith enrolled in the fall of 1952 and attended the college until her transfer to Lander University to complete her BA. The second daughter, Ila Sue, followed in her footsteps, attending the College before transferring to complete a degree in teaching. For the next 13 years, the other Johnson children would attend SMC, until Dwight’s enrollment and eventual transfer to USC in the early 1960s.

Through it all, Dr. Burgess was true to his word. From scholarships to work-study programs, each of the children was able to afford the tuition, room, and board needed for their studies provided they maintained their grades and continued to excel.

Dwight loved his time at the College, but his road from high school to college was difficult. “I was the youngest of the family and financially things were difficult,” he explained. “My sister, Ila Sue, was like a second mother to me. She was already a school teacher when I was finishing my high school classes, and she helped pay for my lunches so that I could focus on other things.

” He credits her support and kindness as foundational to his success at SMC.

“She and I also had eye conditions,” he said. “She understood me and encouraged me, during that time and throughout my life, and I will not be able to repay that.”

While his sister’s investment in his education was invaluable, his success at SMC might also be the product of familiarity. At the time of his enrollment, he had attended every one of his siblings’ graduations, with the exception of his older brother who attended the College for two semesters before taking a leave of absence and joining the Navy. He would later complete a seminary degree. The professors and administration at SMC knew the Johnson family, and Dwight, as the youngest, had first-hand knowledge of the College from his siblings.

While it would have been easy to simply attend his classes and not invest in the people around him, Dwight made it a point to know everyone at the small, residential College. “I knew the name of every student on campus, both male and female,” Dwight says with a smile in his voice. “I was a shy high schooler, and it was important to me that I get out of my shell and meet new people.”

He loved his time at SMC, making friends in clubs, sports, and other activities while advancing academically and preparing for his eventual transfer. His time at the school was wonderful, he says, and he holds a special fondness for the college to this day.

Dwight’s life after SMC has been extraordinary. He transferred from the College in 1964 and completed a bachelor’s in business at the University of South Carolina. His career took a variety of shapes throughout his working life - from office manager to financial controller to entrepreneur; and his personal life was filled with family, church, and civic duties. He and his wife of 38 years have raised a family, and he has volunteered in his community in a variety of capacities, helping start local nonprofits, and serving as a firefighter for his small town.

One of the greatest honors in his life, however, was his service as District Governor for the Lion’s Club’s the “Knights of the Blind.” As an international club office, district governors are responsible for helping the Lion’s Club advance the international president’s vision for the current year while also supporting the organization’s charge of shedding light on the needs of eye conditions throughout the world. The cause is near to his heart both because of his own eye condition as well as his sister Ila Sue’s.

In 2014, Dwight endowed the Johnson family scholarship fund at SMC to honor his sister and his entire family.

“I wanted to help other students receive an education the same way that my father helped us and other kids,” Johnson said. His father had been a life-long advocate for the College. “He was always bragging about his kids to anyone who would listen, and he tried to get many of the local high school students to consider the College.

” The scholarship is a small way to honor his father’s commitment and his sister’s dedication to teaching. “It started as a small thing and has grown as we’ve continued to contribute to it,” Dwight says. “We actually still own the family farm in Chesterfield County, and the proceeds from its operation go back into the scholarship fund.”

SMC changed the course of his family’s life. Today, his children all have graduate degrees, and his grandchildren are preparing to continue the tradition. It gives him great joy knowing he is providing that same, life-changing opportunity to modern students. Much has grown from humble beginnings, and a father’s determination continues to impact the next generation for the better.

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