When Harper Johnson of Greenwood, Miss. dedicated his life savings to engineering education, he knew the lasting impact and potential it held for Mississippi and the Delta. What he may not have guessed was that his gift to educate Mississippians would also, in a few short years, provide a school and clean water in a small African village, draw more young women to engineering, and help the young boy who mowed his grass become an honors pre-med engineering student.
Establishing the Foundation
In 2007 the respected engineer established the Elsie and Harper Johnson Jr. Scholarship Endowment, providing scholarships to students from Leflore and surrounding counties enrolling in the University of Mississippi School of Engineering. Johnson, 96, died in January 2012 and was preceded in death by his wife, Elsie. When Floyd Melton Jr., Johnson's attorney, friend and UM alumnus, has finished sorting the final details of the estate, the Johnson Endowment will reach approximately $2 million.
"When anyone asked Harper ‘why do you think we need more engineers?' he would start grinning. ‘Because we have enough doctors and lawyers,' he'd say," reminisced Melton, who practices in Greenwood. He shares Johnson's belief that revitalizing Mississippi Delta communities requires strong vision and a plentitude of engineers for everything from roads and bridges to high-tech businesses.
"Harper showed me how a town cannot grow and society cannot progress without engineers. Healthy communities require engineers, and Harper knew he had a better chance of putting engineers in towns like Greenwood if he trained local kids rather than trying to lure engineers to Leflore County from outside Mississippi," he said.
Currently, five Greenwood-native Ole Miss engineering students are the first to receive the scholarship, including Alan Barger, senior civil engineering major; Drew Miller, sophomore chemical engineering major; Alexander Dunn, freshman mechanical engineering major; Taylor Nause, freshman general engineering major; and Hugh Warren, freshman general engineering major with a pre-med emphasis. Ryan Ozment of Iuka, a junior chemical engineering major, is the first recipient from outside Leflore County and also the first female recipient.
"After making the decision to attend Ole Miss, I received an invitation for ‘Introduce a Gal to Engineering Day,'" Ozment said. "Attending the event helped assure me I had made the right decision in coming to Ole Miss."
Taking the Reins, Paying it Forward
Ozment is now president of the UM Society of Women Engineers, which sponsors the annual event to recruit high school women to engineering. "Our event has grown to include many more activities and tours. Though all of that is fun, my favorite part is getting the chance to talk to the girls in a more relaxed environment so they'll open up and ask the real questions they have. I thought the ladies who talked to me as a senior in high school were so much older, smarter and interesting – and I want to be that to someone else."
Ozment also tutors fellow students in chemistry and math, serves as her sorority's sustainability chair, and participates in other green and philanthropic initiatives on campus. Upon graduation in 2014, Ozment will have earned a chemical engineering degree with an environmental emphasis. "When people ask the question of ‘what I want to do,' the answer is simple: I want to change the world for the better. That may seem like an unrealistic goal, but all I have to do is start by improving my work environment, then my community, state and nation."
Service, mentorship and social entrepreneurship are common traits among the Johnson Scholarship recipients.
"I wish I could have known Mr. Johnson personally," said UM senior Alan Barger. "His lifestyle and career path are so admirable. I'm a better person for having received his generosity – he altered my life 180 degrees."
Barger graduated high school and enrolled at Mississippi State University, but left school to work in his family's irrigation business. Later, nearing age 30, he resumed studies at Mississippi Delta Community College performing well in calculus and other mathematics classes. After telling a friend he was trying to figure out his next steps, he was connected to Melton.
"Mr. Melton recruited me to Ole Miss and offered me a job managing his apartments in Oxford while I was in school," Barger said. "At that time in my life, it was exactly what I needed. From a cloud of confusion, everything just clicked. Mr. Melton is all about helping you achieve your goal. He has incredible vision. You're thinking about one way to do something and he's already ten steps ahead."
Barger adds to the diversity of UM's engineering class of 2013. "I'm in school with lots of ‘perfect students' who came here right out of high school. It's harder for them to bring any field experience to the table. We're a good match that way, because engineering is problem solving. Every person in our class thinks differently. We work well together."
On a whim, Barger went to an introductory work weekend for UM's Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter. "It was fun and great engineering experience, but it also allowed me the opportunity to help people learn to help themselves, just as I was taught." Now the chapter president, Barger has traveled to the Togolese Republic in West Africa on a EWB service project.
"The EWB Student Chapter adopted the Togo project a couple of years ago," said faculty advisor Marni Kendricks. "Alan has contributed to the project's success in significant ways. Our plan is to build a small school in the Hedome Village of Togo in 2013. We hope to continue with infrastructure improvements in subsequent years including a deep water well, shallow water treatment, fish farms, and irrigation systems to help our friends in Togo with community improvements through engineering innovation."
One day, while working with a classmate on a well design for the Togo project, Barger was discovered by Mustafa Altinakar, director of UM's National Center for Computational Hydroscience and Engineering (NCCHE). Barger was standing in the press box of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, on the top end of a well design built from backflow valves and pitcher pumps to see if they could pull water from that depth. His fellow EWB engineer was on the ground below, manning the bucket of water.
"Dr. Altinakar came by as we were setting up the pump and told us that it would be very difficult for the pump to work," said Barger. "After he saw how hard we were working, he said he needed someone with a good work ethic for a fast-paced project." Shortly after, Altinakar offered Barger an assistantship at NCCHE.
Barger is now finishing his degree while managing apartments, teaching a fluids lab and fulfilling his NCCHE assistantship. "At 30 years old nobody gets these kinds of opportunities," Barger said. "At 30, most people are wishing for another shot but never really get it. I know such opportunities are rare, and I'm so thankful."
Investing in the Future
Many at the UM School of Engineering are inspired by the benefactor's legacy of selflessness, frugality and commitment to education, including Dr. Alexander Cheng, dean of engineering. "The example of Harper Johnson is one our students would be wise to follow. He embodied the qualities that produce excellent students, effectual engineers, and great leaders-discipline, curiosity, entrepreneurship and the desire to leave things better than you found them."
"Harper was extremely tight – that's the only word for it," Melton said. "He did not spend money. Period. Harper didn't even own a washer and dryer until a few years ago. He and Elsie were true depression-era folks. But when it came to funding this scholarship program, he took very little convincing."
Several years ago, Johnson sought investment guidance from Melton. "Harper was frustrated by the fees he was paying. He said every time he accrued interest it was charged back to him through fees. I told him I knew how to help him in the short run, and then I knew exactly where to steer him to make the best long-term impact – the University of Mississippi Foundation."
The UM Foundation maintains a management fee of one-half of 1 percent, the lowest in the Southeastern Conference. This equates 99.5 percent of endowment gifts and 100 percent of nonendowment gifts directly benefitting the designated mission or program.
"We have as good a foundation as any university in the country," said Melton. "I would put our foundation up against any other institution's because of the people involved." Melton said he likes to display copies of the University Foundation newsletter in his office so that people can see how others give and sacrifice.
"People are capable of making gifts they don't think they can make, and capable of giving time they don't think they have," said Melton. "We just have to encourage one another to do more."
Johnson and his wife, Elsie, were proponents of education. As a member of the Mississippi Engineering Society and the National Society of Professional Engineers, Johnson was active in recruiting and coaching Greenwood students from the public and private schools in the national MATHCOUNTS Program. The couple also contributed – in addition to their UM scholarships – $812,000 to the John Lucas IV Teacher Excellence Education Fund for teacher enhancements at Pillow Academy in Greenwood. In turn, the school named its elementary building Johnson Hall.
A Life-Long Connection
Hugh Warren, another Greenwood native and Johnson scholarship recipient, knew Mr. Johnson well, unlike his predecessors.
"Mr. and Mrs. Johnson lived right next to us. He was one of the first people to greet my family when we moved to Greenwood when I was in third grade," said Warren.
"I remember one time my brother and I were trimming some hedges in our yard – we were chopping away, not really knowing what we were doing. Mr. Johnson came outside, and in a very loving way, showed us how to do it properly. His guidance taught me to pay attention to detail. What fascinates me is that he was able to explain it to a 12 year-old in a way that didn't make me feel like I had done something wrong."
Johnson also taught Warren and fellow Johnson Scholar Taylor Nause a thing or two about the physics of flight and rocket propulsion.
"In ninth grade, Taylor and I started experimenting with rockets – we would retrofit anything we could find with a rocket and detonate it. We did this in the alley between my house and the Johnsons'. Mr. Johnson never criticized us for doing this; he would actually help us and offer advice on how to get a better result."
Warren hopes his education will carry him toward a career to further study the mechanical systems of the body, both practicing medicine and participating in the discovery of new technologies for prosthesis and other uses. His personal connections to the Johnsons had nothing to do with his scholarship selection but everything to do with its significance to him.
"I had already decided on Ole Miss and engineering before I even knew this scholarship existed," said Warren. "I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go but wasn't sure yet how to pay for it. When I got the call that I was being awarded this scholarship, it was like everything just fell into place – this man who had already had an impact on my life and taught me so much, here was one more connection. I knew this was what I was supposed to do. Mr. Johnson was a very godly man, and I absolutely think God worked through him to bring me and others to this point."
Tending to One's Roots
Born in Senatobia, Johnson attended Senatobia City Schools, Northwest Mississippi Junior College and Ole Miss, where he was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He later transferred to Indiana Institute of Technology to pursue the burgeoning field of electrical engineering.
"Harper was constantly tinkering with everything, taking apart radios, televisions, seeing how they worked and putting them back together," said Melton. "When he was in school in the thirties, an instructor told him electrical engineering was just a fad. Harper had great vision."
Johnson later earned his electrical engineering degree from Indiana Institute of Technology and was certified and licensed by the Mississippi State Board of Registration of Professional Engineers. Meanwhile, Johnson served in the Signal Corps during World War II reaching the rank of captain. After the war, he served as vice president of the board of directors of Supreme Inc., which now operates as Supreme Electronics Corp., a division of Hickok Inc. Before retirement, he was associated with Greenwood Utilities in an administrative and engineering capacity. Johnson's community service included volunteering on the board of directors of Cottonlandia Museum and Educational Foundation, the IRS-VITA program offering free tax return assistance to individuals, the American Legion, and active membership in the Greenwood First Presbyterian Church.
"As a native Mississippian myself, I greatly value the scholarship opportunities like the Johnson Scholarship Fund that is reserved for our young people," said Marni Kendricks, assistant dean of engineering. "An engineering degree can be a life-changer for some people. Students attending school in state with scholarship assistance can enjoy the benefit of graduating with minimal debt as they begin a career. Direct investment in a young person's academic preparation for a significant career is a gift that cannot be measured."
To make a gift to the UM School of Engineering or other academic program, send a check with the fund noted in the memo line to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Avenue, Oxford, MS 38655; contact Kevin Gardner, development officer for engineering, at 662-915-7601 or email@example.com; or visit www.umfoundation.com/makeagift.