Grandma Johnson: A Reflection on Giving
Mrs. Helena Haralson Johnson (1873-1959) became known by generations of Lipscomb students as Grandma Johnson after she lived among them for the latter part of her life. It's easy to look back on the life of Grandma Johnson and identify her as a generous donor to Lipscomb. She contributed money for the building of both Johnson and Sewell Halls on campus. She also benevolently started the Johnson Scholarship Foundation in 1951 for those pursuing a Christian education. In an age when women didn't normally hold high positions in business, Johnson played a key role in the formation of two of Nashville's largest insurance companies-Nashville Life & Accident Insurance and Life & Casualty Insurance Co. She worked diligently with both companies and acquired enough stock to allow her to be the generous donor that she was.
Defining Grandma Johnson by her business investments and financial donations, however, doesn't capture the entire image of the life of giving Johnson lived. She did not live the life of a disconnected donor to the university. She not only helped build the two dorms, but she actually lived in an apartment in each one and stayed active in the lives of the Lipscomb students. She was a woman of wealth who could have lived in one of the finest homes in the most fashionable part of Nashville. She chose to live in a modest apartment on campus devoting her life and her means to the service of others.
Joining wholeheartedly into the life of the campus, Johnson opened her apartment to students as a home away from home for them. She also bought a car to be used in taking groups of students on educational and entertaining trips. Paul Brown, Lipscomb alumnus and recipient of one of her first scholarships for Bible majors, remembers the days when he traveled with Johnson. "I was one of her drivers when I was a student," he states. "It was the first time I had seen an electric garage door opener. She had a garage built into Johnson Hall. She never drove herself, but she was very generous with her car. I was in a quartet and she always let us use her car to go sing and she came along."
Johnson went along on trips to help preachers get to their churches, to help the quartet get to singing engagements and to show students sights around the country they would never be able to see without her generosity. "Through the years, groups of us traveled from the east coast to the west coast with her, form Florida to Maine. She always paid all of the expenses of the students who traveled with her. She would designate someone to keep her Esso credit card and give that person cash for meals," Brown adds.
Johnson enjoyed her time on campus with students, also. She attended campus events and could often be found sitting with students around a piano she donated to the school. She encouraged the students in their studies and in their personal lives. During her lifetime, she compiled two books of inspirational material and distributed them on campus to students.
Because of her generosity, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation has assisted several thousand students since its beginning. Recently, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation board gave the foundation to Lipscomb asking that the scholarship be given to Bible majors. In that way, Johnson still touches the lives of students today.
After her death, A. C. Pullias, former Lipscomb University president, wrote, "It is impossible to estimate the extent of the influence of this extraordinary woman. As a business leader, friend of young people, generous supporter of Christian education, faithful worker for the Lord's church and author of inspirational material, she proved her ability. Yet with all of her success, she remained a humble Christian. In one sense of the word, she can never be replaced. In another sense, she must be replaced."
She wrote of herself, "My health has been good; I have traveled to many places I had not hoped to see; the investments I have made have prospered; the more I have given cheerfully, the more I have received, and the stronger has my faith grown in the love and protection of our heavenly Father." Johnson continues to influence people years after her death through the legacy of caring and giving she left all of us.