Johnson played key role in saving SMSU

To the editor:

“Ruth Ann and I and our two boys, Skipp and Andy, moved to Marshall on July 1, 1977, when I became president of Southwest Minnesota State University. We were truly blessed to have as our next door neighbors, Raymond Johnson Jr., his dear wife Marlys, and their five wonderful children: Melanie, Melissa, Ross, Paul, and Peter. Over the next five years, our family became great friends and neighbors of the entire Johnson family.

Our kids, Skipp and Andy, played with their children, especially Paul and Peter. We have never had better next door neighbors in our entire lives.

As the new president of Southwest, I got to know Ray very well not only because he was the president of Midwest Aviation and the airport base operator, but because Ray had several planes and he was a brilliant pilot.

In the first several months of my job, I knew that I had a great deal to do at Southwest State because the enrollment had been seriously declining since 1972 and the faculty leadership and the university administration had been in constant conflict for at least three years.

Before I even got to Marshall in July of 1977, I knew that many key state legislators were threatening to shut down Southwest unless the above problems were solved quickly. Something dramatic had to be done. I decided to go to every high school in every town on every road leading out of Marshall for 100 miles.

Well, in the next year, Ray Johnson played a key role in the turnaround of Southwest because he flew me all over the state of Minnesota in my first year to speak to the students of 94 high schools and to speak to about 95 Rotary, Kiwanis, and Chamber meetings around the state. In the next four years, Ray continued to fly me everywhere.

My son, Skipp and I attended the memorial service Aug. 4 for Ray Johnson at the beautiful Living Word Lutheran Church in Marshall. So many friends and supporters of Ray and Marlys Johnson were in attendance. It was a wonderful and moving memorial service.

In the last several days, I decided to write a letter to the Marshall Independent about my friendship with not only Ray, but Marlys and their five great children. Ray Johnson is without question one of the finest individuals I have ever met in my life. When I think of Ray, I think of a man of character, impeccable integrity, respect for everyone he ever met, an unquestioned work ethic, and his love of his dear wife, Marlys, and his five incredibly successful children.

Ray Johnson, for me, was the quintessential American. He could have been successful in any century in American history from the 17th century to the 21st century. It is people and leaders like Ray Johnson who have made our nation the greatest country in the world. There was nothing he could not do.

He represented kindness to everyone from his family to his customers. Henry James once said: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Everyone who ever knew or met Ray Johnson over his 84 years witnessed his humility, his generosity of spirit, and his complete respect for others.

I will always remember Ray Johnson because he never tried to be anything but himself. He was always so incredibly authentic and true. Oscar Wilde said years ago: “Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple and the simple thing is the right thing.”

Ray’s wife, Marlys, and their five children reflect his goodness, decency, and love for their church. I will never forget Ray Johnson. He and his family will be in our hearts and prayers forever.

Jon Wefald

Bay Lake