Longtime Killeen Resident Becomes Oldest A&M-Central Texas Undergraduate Degree Recipient This Spring | Local News


Ethel “PJ” Johnson was, by her own admission, little more than an 18-year-old girl when she first set foot on a college campus.

Growing up in San Antonio, she attended Highlands High School, graduating among a total of 800 seniors. Only about 30 of her 1965 graduates, she recalls, were African American.

This lack of representation, she says, did not diminish the plans she had for herself, nor the competitive spirit that would stay with her throughout her life. She had no intention of being defined by anyone’s expectations other than her own.

This year, the 75-year-old Killeen resident will graduate from Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen after completing her final course this semester, Johnson will be the oldest person to graduate from A&M-Central Texas, according to the university.

Throughout her high school years, she had raced competitively. And, she says, she didn’t do it for the medals or the recognition. She did it, she explains, because she was in competition with herself.

“I could run the 50-meter sprint in 4.3 seconds,” she said with a spark of pride that shone in her obsidian eyes. “I was quick. At most, I weighed maybe 80 pounds. But it was the kind of thing I didn’t do for anyone else. I did it for me. To prove that I could.

After graduating, Johnson enrolled at San Antonio College.

“I remember the very first time I set foot on this campus,” she said. “And at that moment, I just knew. I told myself that I was going to get my baccalaureate, no matter how long it took.

How long that would take, even she admits, was more of a surprise than an obstacle.

As is so often the case, his life would reveal a collage of expected and unexpected events. And though they might have delayed her goal, she was not a woman who would be denied her dream.

Marriage in 1968 to her high school sweetheart Claude Johnson, her enlistment in the army and her two subsequent postings to Korea, later postings to Colorado and overseas were like predictable random milestones along a quest that she had learned to anticipate, but to which she would never entirely surrender.

The first time she heard of Central Texas College, for example, she was not a resident of central Texas. She was on the other side of the world with her young family on a post in Wiesbaden, Germany.

She had just become a mother for the fourth time, her little ones ranging in age from newborns to thirteen years old.

Anyone giving him advice at the time could have told him it was best to wait. They might have discouraged her, assuming it would somehow be easier to work at college in the mix of her already busy life when the little ones were older.

At a time in higher education when women were a minority and women of color virtually non-existent in undergraduate programs, hindsight seems to suggest that none of that was an obstacle she was willing to let l ‘Stop.

She enrolled at Central Texas College through one of the distance learning centers in Germany and began attending classes in the evenings, tirelessly ticking off required courses as if training for 50-meter races. which she had mastered in her youth.

“I finally got my associate’s degree in the mid-1980s,” she said. “But I knew in my heart that while it was good to reach that milestone, I wasn’t done yet.”

Moved to Killeen in 1980, Johnson and his family settled into military housing. Eventually they bought their home here, raising their four children, Theresa, Nichelle, Tristal and Jean-Claude.

Her husband, who had remained on active duty, had been sent to Korea twice before his eventual retirement from the JAG Corps. Subsequently, he worked for the Texas Legislative Council for 15 years, retiring in 2007 and eventually serving as a brigadier with Killeen ISD.

During her own career, Ethel had been employed in the civil service and on KISD’s information systems (IT) help desk staff until her own retirement in 2012. She and her husband for more than half a century had raised their children, nurtured them throughout their lives. earning his own degree and, in the process, temporarily shelved his own degree ambitions.

It would be her husband, in 2013, who would be her inspiration to return to this life goal.

“My husband had a stroke that year,” Johnson said. “It was a very scary time for our entire family. He was at the VA Hospital in Temple and the staff took wonderful care of him.

One day, she recalls, he pulled her to his side and told her he wanted her to pick up where she left off. If life was uncertain, he would tell her, it would be uncertain in the best possible way. And he wanted to see her finish that undergraduate degree.

Completing the final semesters of her degree was a mixture of challenges, triumphs and perseverance: unsurprisingly, the same characteristics that mark the life of the woman herself.

She’s taken one or two classes a semester since her husband’s encouraging words; at first, take courses on campus. And, in 2020, when COVID upended the best-laid plans of so many others, Ethel didn’t back down.

She took her classes, she says, online, embracing the tech format as easily as — well — a runner to a starting gun.

Even as the oldest student in virtually all of her classes, she took it all in stride.

“I loved my time at A&M-Central Texas,” she laughed. “Even though I was older than the most senior faculty member who taught me.”

Often, she recalls, her classmates would offer to help, a kindness she appreciated, but often found herself helping.

And now, after completing her application to graduate as a May 2022 graduate, she’s completing a senior capstone course and can’t wait to don the traditional black cap and gown in the company of everyone who supported her. throughout this journey and all the others who have shaped it.

She reflects on this moment to consider her story as one of many other stories of accomplishment so relevant to Black History Month.

“It’s important to remember that we can live a life that reflects the positive things that African Americans have accomplished,” she observed.

“The important thing is not to lose sight of your dreams,” she said. “No matter how complicated your life is. No matter how long you have to wait or plan. No matter what obstacles or hesitations you might encounter. The most important thing is perseverance. Because if you have this one thing, nothing else can hold you back.


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