Dwain W. Penn
Beyond the usual curriculum of courses established for formal education is a field of studies known collectively as electives – an important branch of academia in which a student is free to choose what he or she feels will broaden his or her education. One Thomaston resident devoted 30 years of his life teaching one such elective course, Industrial Arts, at R. E. Lee. Coach Ronald Johnston was simply known as “the shop teacher.”
What led Johnston to pursue this career is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it started as a child playing with tools in his Daddy’s farm shop in north Mississippi. Ronald Royce Johnston was born October 4, 1939, the fourth of five children on a farm near Shannon, Mississippi, just a few miles south of Tupelo. Ronald’s father was a farmer until the mid-fifties, when he left the dusty fields to work for Rockwell Industries, which produced power tools.
Johnston attended grade school at Brewer Elementary, where he found recess was his favorite subject. Upon graduating from Shannon High School in 1957, he selected Itawamba Community College as his first step to higher education. After two years there, he went on to Mississippi State University in Starkville and earned an Industrial Arts degree.
Following graduation, Johnston’s military draft notice came in. To control his own destiny, he opted for a six-month stint in the Army National Guard. By fate, his duty had a profound brush with history. Johnston’s brigade was chosen by President John F. Kennedy to be put on active duty for deployment to the University of Mississippi to provide security during integration of the college.
Since Guard service disrupted his plans to find employment, Johnston asked his alma mater for help and received numerous job offers and applications. Positions in Mississippi did not have wages Johnston thought were adequate, so he looked at ten or so Georgia jobs.
“With most of the Georgia positions promising good salaries, I found the choice difficult,” said Johnston, “so I reached blindly into the pile and pulled out one. It was from Thomaston City Schools Superintendent Gordon R. Holstun.”
By close of summer 1962, Johnston was in Thomaston teaching at R. E. Lee Institute.
“I planned to work a while and return to Mississippi,” explained Johnston. “But I met someone special and got married.” Johnston saw Sharon Black at the Thomaston Bowl bowling alley. Perhaps it was “love at first strike.” He is most grateful the random job offer brought him to Thomaston.
For decades, Lee had a reputation in the southeast for outstanding academic and athletic programs. Johnston’s education and skills contributed to both entities. Not only did he run an exemplary classroom, but he excelled as a coach for the school’s athletic teams. He served as the assistant coach of the boys’ basketball team, the track team and was head baseball coach for many years. In his third year at Lee, he became the assistant football coach and helped Jim Cavan and Tommy Perdue field quality teams for 20 years.
The shop class was located in the old Lee gym basement for Johnston’s first year. As the new gym was built across the street, plans were implemented to attach an Industrial Arts building, allowing Johnston to literally step up into a brighter working environment in 1963.
The term “shop” to describe the classroom syllabus does not represent the variety of skills offered students. Instructions in wood working, metalworking, drafting, leather-craft and electricity were provided. Metalworking was artistic acid etchings of copper sheets and the electricity course involved installing electrical switches and outlets.
“Naturally shop appealed to boys during much of my career,” said Johnston. “But when boys started taking home economic classes, it was destined for Industrial Arts to become co-educational.” He saw quite a few girls in his classes before retiring.
Johnston spent some of his summer breaks furthering his education and acquired a Masters degree in Industrial Arts from the University of Georgia in 1981.
After retiring in 1993, the last year that Lee existed as a school, Johnston, having spent his entire career teaching there, looked forward to leisure time. He enjoys recreational pursuits of fishing and golfing. His work ethics make him self-confessed champion of the “honey do list” and volunteering at his church, Thomaston First United Methodist. He has been a member there since arriving in Thomaston, moving his letter with him from Mississippi.
Today, Ronald and Sharon Johnston anticipate celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in a few years. They have a son, Brian, employed by the Georgia Department of Transportation, a daughter, Rhonda, who teaches Special Education at Upson-Lee Middle School and three grandchildren. In June 2011, Johnston received the “Service to Mankind Award” from the Thomaston Sertoma Club, of which he has been a member for four years.
As for what others may remember about this devoted educator, Johnston has not put much thought into it. He hopes they realize it was his goal to help people.
Ronald Johnston’s legacy may be greater than he anticipates. Like the Biblical story of Dorcas, where her industry was praised, hundreds of Johnston’s students can hold items such as book shelves, finished leather goods and framed metal etchings and proclaim, “Coach Johnston taught me the skills to make these.” Such tokens endure longer than oral or written history of one’s life. Like the metalwork he taught, Johnston has been “etched” into the hearts and minds of many of his students.
“I was honored to teach at Lee,” confessed Johnston, “It was an outstanding school with an outstanding faculty.”
In truth, Ronald R. Johnston’s tenure helped to make the faculty so exceptional.