Ardmore Middle School teacher and longtime community member Mary Johnson says she has dedicated her life to best serving others, especially youth.
It was that dedication, along with the positive influence she has had on countless youth that has led to Johnson, known to many as “The Fox,” to be named a living legend by the One In A Million organization, which strives to preserve the legacies of Oklahoma’s living legends.
The educator is one of more than 70 Oklahomans to be honored and will be represented in The Iconic Living Legend Legacy Exhibit that will tour Oklahoma schools, community festivals and museums in the coming months.
Johnson said it was an honor to be named to the list and applauded at a ceremony last month on the campus of Langston University. Her goal since becoming a teacher has been to work with students and youth in the community to encourage them to seek greatness and prepare them for higher education.
"I wanted to become a teacher because I wanted to make an effective change in a child's life," Johnson said, who began teaching in South Carolina before moving to Oklahoma to teach at Fox Public Schools in the mid-1960s. "I wanted to do that in the classroom and outside the classroom." As an educator, Johnson has taught in elementary to high school classrooms. These days, she can be found teaching social studies at Ardmore Middle School.
She says her goal as a teacher is to make lessons real to students and relate the message for students to grasp.
"When I teach them, I make sure they actually see and hear what I am teaching about," Johnson said. "I find ways to teach it differently. I incorporate drama in my lessons. I try to stay current." Outside of lessons taught, Johnson says she makes sure her students understand that her care for them extends past weekdays.
"I tell them, 'you can always count on me,'" Johnson said. "They know they can count on me. And they have called on me and I have come." Johnson's reach is far beyond the classroom or the school building. She established the Miss Black Ardmore scholarship pageant 35 years ago to help young women gain scholarships to various colleges and universities in Oklahoma. The pageant has expanded over the years to include Mr. Black Debonair, as well as a teen and youth pageant. Additionally, she began the Miss Black Duncan and Mr. Debonair pageant in Stephens County.
She is the founder of the African-American Youth Achievers program, which is a youth leadership program that teaches the importance of staying in school, becoming involved in extra-curricular activities, highlights culture awareness and prepares students for higher education. Within the program, youth are encouraged to develop their musical and speech talents.
Johnson said many of the youths in the pageant and achievers programs are among the many that have been awarded scholarships and other opportunities at various colleges and universities.
"I want to give kids an opportunity and show there are avenues outside of Ardmore," Johnson said. "I want to let the kids see and have a vision. I have taken kids to OU, OSU, Langston, Oklahoma City, Cameron, Murray State, Southeastern and colleges in Texas and Kansas." Establishing relationships with college representatives and administrators has helped make many of those scholarships and grant opportunities possible, Johnson admits. She has made it her goal to know who to call when one of her students needs an answer.
The payoff for Johnson is witnessing the end result, she said.
"The greatest gift is to see them go on to college, then on to their career and succeed," Johnson said.
Johnson has served on a variety of community boards and worked closely with various groups in hopes to better the community. Some of those include the H.F.V. Wilson Community Center board, Ardmore Arts and Humanity Council, the Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Program sponsored by the Carter County Health Department, and the Housing and Urban Development Advisory Board.
She holds awards and honors from Langston University, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, the American Legion, Miss Black Oklahoma State Pageant and many more. She was nominated by Gov. Henry Bellman to a four-year term on the Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities Board of Directors. Gov. George Nigh nominated her to the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority board.
Johnson and her husband, Albert, have one son, Albert Johnson Jr.
Johnson says despite a teaching career that spans for more than 40 years, she has no plans for retirement.
"I enjoy what I do," Johnson says. "I am here for my students every day and I always give them my best."