By Gail Crutchfield
Special to The Times
Dr. Ben Johnson, the man who served as the first president of what would become Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, passed away Wednesday, Nov. 6. He was 87.
In 1965, the Alabama State Board of Education appointed Johnson as director of what was then called the George C. Wallace State Trade School of Cullman County. That was two years after the State Legislature approved the school’s formation and a year before the first classes were held.
“Dr. Ben Johnson played a significant role in establishing today's community college system that serves more than 130,000 students annually,” said Wallace State President Dr. Vicki Karolewics. “That is quite a legacy.”
Johnson spent six years as the director of the trade school, helping to establish a program of technical education in Cullman County. “That task is complete to an amazing degree,” he wrote when announcing his resignation in February of 1971. Enrollment at the school at the time of Johnson’s departure was 295 students, compared to 59 when classes started in 1966.
Johnson served as president until the appointment of Dr. James C. Bailey. Johnson’s death follows less than a month after Dr. Bailey’s passing in October. Prior to his time at the trade school, Johnson served as principal at Cullman County area schools and as a professor at St. Bernard College.
Johnson noted at the time of his resignation that he planned to continue his own education to fulfill a goal of earning his doctorate, which he later did from Auburn University. He previously earned bachelor and master degrees from the University of Alabama.
“I firmly believe that my work is at a point to allow me the selfish pleasure of doing the thing that I love, and this is teaching,” he said.
After leaving Wallace State, Johnson went on to work at Reed State Technical College and Gadsden State Community College. Upon retirement from the education system, he purchased The Cullman Tribune.
“He wrote a weekly column that was always associated with our family or politics and always with the goal of improving the lives of people in the community,” said his daughter, Dr. Mell Johnson.
Along with his family and friends, education was an important part of Dr. Johnson’s life.
“He loved life, his precious Ruby, family, friends and the inexhaustible power of teaching and learning,” Dr. Mell Johnson said of her father. “Education was a pathway for Dad personally, from his struggles in childhood. He realized that is would help him reach his personal goals.”
The Johnson family was a large part of Wallace State over the years, starting with Dr. Ben Johnson and followed by his wife, the late Dr. Ruby Johnson, who taught English at the college for around 30 years. Their daughter, Dr. Mell Johnson, also taught English at Wallace State.
The family’s reach extended further into the community college system, with son John Johnson serving at length as president of Alabama Southern Community College, previously Patrick Henry Junior College, where Karolewics, earned an associate degree.
Three other children — sons Ben and Thomas Evan, and daughter Maleigh — survive Johnson, as well as 10 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and two sisters.
Funeral services for Dr. Johnson will be held at 3 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Seventh Street Baptist Church in Cullman. The family will receive friends during visitation from 1 to 3 p.m. in the church sanctuary. Burial will follow the service in Cullman City Cemetery.