By Ralph Kurtenbach, Special to ASSIST News Service
QUITO, ECUADOR (ANS – February 26, 2018) — For many young Central American students, the face of the United States was represented by Ron Johnson — a man sitting across the desk in a small university office at a Christian college in Arkansas.
At John Brown University (JBU) in Siloam Springs, Johnson directed the Walton International Scholarship Program (WISP), which granted young people from several countries an opportunity to attend college. Sam and Helen Walton established WISP in the 1980s to counter Soviet influence after learning of many Central American young people attending Russian universities on scholarships.
“The goal of the Walton Scholarship,” states the JBU website, “is to provide the leadership necessary to strengthen democracy and improve living conditions throughout Mexico and Central America.” Sam Walton, now deceased, was the founder of Walmart, a chain of mega-retail stores.
Ron Johnson directed the WISP at John Brown University from 1996 until his death in 2017. This meant frequent trips to the Tulsa airport to greet the students coming from such places as Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama.
The Walton scholars often came from financially disadvantaged homes. Many were leaving their country for the first time; some were the first in their families to attend college. Johnson had already met many during recruitment trips to Central America in which he and the WISP directors from two other Arkansas-based institutions (Harding University and the University of the Ozarks) had interviewed prospective students.
As Johnson chronicled in his 2012 book, Our Story: The JBU Walton International Scholarship Program, the students’ orientation to life in the U.S. required much of both sides. Scholarship recipients were expected to, among other things, keep their grades up and not change their marital status. Most were single; others were already married upon approval into WISP. In addition, the Waltons had deemed it essential that upon graduation, the students would return to their home countries to use their education to strive for change and the betterment of their respective societies.
For his part, Johnson introduced the Walton scholars to the town of Siloam Springs. He had arranged for host families from area churches to welcome the young people for an evening, a weekend or a holiday break. The décor in his office reminded the students of home—a colorful place, according to Jenny Castro, a Walton scholar from Honduras assigned a work-study position with Johnson.
“It was a place full of people,” she said, “Everyone wanted to come and see Mr. Johnson, who was always ready with un abrazo (a hug). Many students came seeking advice, company or just a good time at the Walton office.”
“He was totally selfless, with endless administrative tasks to do for them and with them,” said Bob Smith of the JBU engineering department. He and Johnson had served with Reach Beyond (then HCJB World Radio) together in Quito, Ecuador some 15 years earlier.
Of radio ministry years, Ken MacHarg remembers Johnson as having, “a strong passion1 for — or calling to — international Christian radio and the outreach of such stations as TWR Bonaire and HCJB via shortwave to broadcast Christian programming to the entire world.”
“He had a vision of using the international nature of shortwave radio to reach people in closed countries, remote locations and unevangelized nations,” said MacHarg, who directed HCJB’s English Language Service. The Johnsons began serving in Ecuador in 1988 and re-entered life in the United States in 1996.
Plenty of good times filled Johnson’s years with WISP, including Christmas parties, mission trips, learning adventures (Washington, D.C. for example) and the Walton scholars’ own highly competitive World Cup soccer tournament. As Johnson reveals in his book, there were sad times as well. A dozen times, his responsibilities forced him to revoke a student’s JBU enrollment due to non-compliance with the scholarship stipulations. Over two decades, he also made plenty of emergency room visits with students. Across his desk, he counseled them through homesickness, romantic break-ups, academic struggles and a host of other problems every young person experiences.
In addition to all of this, Johnson’s responsibilities included, “getting dorm supplies for them, doing 60 IRS 1040s each spring, community service schedules and transportation, etc, etc.,” according to Smith, who sometimes joined him for coffee at the JBU campus. “He was unique.”
Irene Tobias, a WISP graduate from Guatemala, summarized benefits of the program as providing her, “confidence in myself, wisdom, [and] knowledge about the competitive world we live in.” She said she also learn that “kindness and faithfulness to God never comes unrewarded. God definitely had a purpose for sending me to JBU.” By the 30th anniversary of WISP in 2015, JBU has graduated over 400 Walton scholars; most had earned degrees in engineering, business, science, communications and graphic design.
A classmate, Adriana Valle, told of returning to El Salvador, educated as a journalist. After several years at La Prensa Grafica, she worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later as a media official for the Communications Secretariat of the Salvadoran president’s office.
Johnson’s working career demonstrated his abilities in dealing with technologies as well as people. Born in McLeansboro, Ill., to Newton Wesley Johnson and Leda Faye Ellis Johnson on July 27, 1948, he joined the U.S. Army after completing high school. He served in Korea during the Vietnam conflict.
Johnson went on to attain an electrical engineering degree from the Devry Institute of Technology. He married Suzanne (Sue) Beth Davis on June 17, 1972. The Johnsons moved to Bonaire with Trans World Radio in 1981 and lived there for several years. He enjoyed scuba diving and taught his children to attain certification in the sport. In Quito, Ecuador, Ron worked as a transmitter engineer and later directed operations at Radio HCJB’s international transmitter site.
In Siloam Springs, he directed WISP at John Brown University for more than two decades. First diagnosed in 2006 with congestive heart failure, he adjusted his schedule but continued with the work of helping Walton scholars to succeed. After consulting with his doctors, he continued travelling to Central America and Mexico for interviews with those who wanted their opportunity to make their way in the world.
Johnson died on December 8, 2017, at Circle of Life Hospice, Springdale, Ark. He was 69. His parents preceded him in death. Survivors include his wife, Sue,; sons Chad (Beth) Nashville, Tenn., Scott (Molly) Siloam Springs, Ark.; daughters Julie Kandal and husband Ravi, Siloam Springs, Ark.; and Anna Johnson of Siloam Springs, Ark. Other survivors include 10 grandchildren Sydney, David, Josiah, Olivia, Daniel, Haven, Nilaya, Arya, Dhevan and Aadhi; brother Donald Johnson of Carthage, Tennessee and Debbie Pierson of Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Photo captions: 1) Ron E. Johnson with an award for his dedicated work. 2) The Ron and Sue Johnson family (circa 1990). Front left to right: Scott, Julie, Chad. Back: Sue, Anna, 3) Ron. Ron Johnson (at right) and students of the Walton International Scholarship Program (WISP) at John Brown University in Arkansas. 4) A student with Ron Johnson, who for more than 20 years directed the Walton International Scholarship Program (WISP). 5) A pilot transported Ron Johnson to the small settlement of Rancho Huapoca in the municipality of Madera in Mexico’s Chihuahua state, where he visited a Walton scholar and her family. (Photo circa 2005) 6) Ralph Kurtenbach at the microphone.
About the writer: Ralph Kurtenbach has been an English-language newscaster and program host on the international shortwave radio station, HCJB, in Ecuador. He blogs at www.calloftheandes.wordpress.com. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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