Canton native Johnson takes leadership skills global

2/19/2008

By Gary Pettus
The Clarion-Ledger

 

During his years at Millsaps College, Theon Johnson III was the student leader everyone hated to follow — to the podium.

 

“My worst nightmare was to have to speak after Theon,” says Frances Lucas, president of Millsaps. “He was one of the most spell-binding orators I’ve ever heard. And he quickly rose to leadership in anything he joined.

 

“I believe he could be whatever he wants to be. President of the United States would be fine with me.”

 

A native of the small Madison County community of Sharon, Johnson did serve as president a few years ago — of Millsaps’ student government.

 

As far as anyone remembers, he was the first African-American to hold that office at the Methodist-supported liberal arts college in Jackson.

 

“I’ve done some good things — on paper,” Johnson says with a laugh.

 

But those who know the 2006 Millsaps graduate suspect he has only begun to make history. For now, he’s making a name for himself at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

And he’s already earned distinction in the Methodist church, working, for instance, as a delegate to the World Social Forum 2005 in Brazil to discuss civil and human rights, and environmental concerns. He has served in such far-reaching organizations as the Division on Ministries with Young People.

 

“I don’t know when the guy sleeps,” says Lisa Garvin, Millsaps College chaplain. “He has enormous charisma and, step by step, he has been elected by his peers to serve in these leadership positions. We’re talking about global leadership.”

 

It should be heady stuff for anyone, but certainly for a young man of 23.

 

“People put a lot of pressure on him to be a rising star,” says Darby Ray, a Millsaps religious studies professor.

 

“But I believe it would be just as wonderful if Theon were an obscure but effective professor or social worker or something else. He’s wise enough to know you make something of your life when you give and you care; and you don’t have to be known for that.”

 

Certainly, that’s a lesson his mother taught him.

 

“I continue to hear my mom’s voice,” Johnson says: “ ‘Low and humble is the way.’"

 

The value of humility wasn’t the only lesson he learned from parents Jewelry and Theon Jr., he says. Foremost was the importance of family.

 

“I can’t name one childhood event, one play or program I was in during school, when my parents weren’t there. My grandparents too,” Johnson says. “My parents have been my cornerstone.”

There were lessons in appreciating other cultures. “My family has hosted exchange students from Norway,” Johnson says. “I’ve had friends from southeast Asia in our home.”

 

His parents not only told him to embrace the world, they put him and his two sisters in the car and drove them to it. “We went to aquariums, the Natural Science Museum in Jackson,” Johnson says. “We took a family trip to Washington, D.C., to see the Capitol, the Smithsonian museums.

 

“All that was crucial in my making a real-life connection to the things I studied.”

 

He decided to study at Millsaps.

 

After excelling in the classroom at Canton High School, Johnson realized one day that the college he should attend was just 25 miles down the road. He hadn’t considered it, he says, until it occurred to him that it offered what he was looking for: its affiliation with the United Methodist Church, a celebration of diversity, academic excellence, an interest in social justice.

Philosophy and religious studies would be his major.

 

But he would be going from a predominantly African-American high school to a predominantly white college: For undergraduate and graduate students, Millsaps’ minority ratio for 2007-2008 is 17.3 percent.

 

It seems that by his freshman year, no black student had ever served as student body president. He decided he’d be the first. “My parents had always taught me to study hard, to learn how to articulate my thoughts, and from that experience, I learned to be involved always in some sort of leadership,” he says.

 

“As a freshman, within a month-and-a-half, I had made my way to meeting almost 95 percent of the college.”

 

His demeanor made him popular with faculty and students alike. Popular enough to be elected student-body president. A rare kind of president, in many ways, Ray says. “Theon was a force of nature. He was an amazing repository of energy and passion, one of those people whom everybody knew and loved and respected.”

 

He and other student leaders helped revive the historic relationship between Millsaps and historically black Tougaloo College. In 2004, he helped draft legislation that led to Millsaps’ observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

 

“He was aware of himself as a member of the African-American community and a person of color,” Ray says. “At the same time, he was a natural bridge builder. He gave voice to students’ concerns. He would ask the hard questions: ‘Who will benefit from this program?’ and ‘Who will be left out?’

 

“He saw himself as a member of the larger community as well. “That’s a rare gift or ability for any of us.”

 

Not so much a gift, Johnson says, as the outlook he absorbed from his parents, whose words hit home the first time he saw the world from the sky. “It was my first time on a plane,” Johnson says. “I was in the 10th grade and had the opportunity to go to Europe with some other students. I had a window seat on the plane, so I was able to see it as we flew in: Amsterdam.

 

“The last time I had seen architecture on the ground was when we took off from Memphis. “I’ll never forget feeling a new type of connection to the world. It was the moment our plane came down out of the clouds.”

 

Different terrain, different buildings. Same people.

 

”I realized we are a lot closer than we think,” Johnson says. “We only have one Earth, the place we all call home.”

 

This article first appeared in the Feb. 9 edition of “The Clarion-Ledger” and is used with permission.