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Pay it Forward Principle: 21 years and counting of Willard H. Johnson Scholarships

Courtesy photo. Will Johnson.

By Crystal Hayduk

(Chelsea Update would like to thank Willard H. Johnson for his time and his book, Musings and Memories, ©2016, in compiling the information for this article.)

A local influence reaches from coast to coast thanks to the ancient idea of paying it forward.

Since 1999, nearly 100 Willard H. Johnson scholarships have been awarded to individuals from the Chelsea area to assist in funding their college educations. Recipients of the scholarships work in a wide variety of fields and live in locations between Connecticut and California.  

The scholarships are named in honor of benefactor Willard H. Johnson, who served as the first full-time president and chief executive officer of Chelsea Community Hospital (CCH) — from September, 1975 until his retirement in 1998.

First established in 1970, CCH experienced tremendous growth during Johnson’s 23 years of leadership. In 1975, the hospital had fewer than 100 employees and only 14 physicians with medical staff privileges, he said. In 1982, the hospital was the largest employer centrally located between Ann Arbor, Jackson, Lansing, and Adrian. By December, 1997, there were more than 1,200 full- and part-time employees, more than 300 physicians with medical staff privileges, and about 300 active volunteers.

As Johnson began to contemplate retirement in the fall of 1997, he and the hospital’s executive committee worked together to ensure a seamless transition to the next president. To thank him for his service to the hospital and the Chelsea community, the hospital awarded Johnson an amount equal to his final year’s salary. 

It was decision time. Johnson could have made any number of investments with this retirement bonus, but he remembered the years of his youth in New Jersey.

When Johnson was 12 years old, his father passed away. During that time of tragedy, his family felt the caring support of their community. The following summer, in 1958, his neighbor offered him a full-time summer job to help support his mom and sister.

Then in 1959, Johnson was offered a full scholarship (tuition, books, room and board) at Blair Academy in Blairstown, NJ. In exchange, Johnson was expected to maintain good academic standing, participate in sports, work in the dining hall three times a day, and do other jobs as requested.

Johnson graduated from Blair Academy in 1962, with gratitude for the education and life lessons that were ultimately crucial to his personal and career development. Two beliefs he had acquired during high school were to do his best each day and to help others in the future as he had been helped.

He had already spent his entire adult life striving for excellence; it was time to help the next generation of young people. Johnson expressed his desire to provide annual scholarships to the children or grandchildren of Chelsea Community Hospital employees.

Fred Holdsworth, a certified public accountant and member of the CCH executive committee, advised Johnson that if he left his award with the hospital, the earnings would support four $2,500 scholarships annually.

Following a second tax opinion, Johnson accepted Holdsworth’s recommendation.

The first Willard H. Johnson Scholarship was bestowed in 1999, two in 2000, and four in 2001 and later years. Since 2010, scholarship eligibility has been expanded to include children and grandchildren of employees of Silver Maples of Chelsea, United Methodist Retirement Communities, and St. Louis Center.

Additionally, Willard H. Johnson Scholarships have been awarded at his alma maters:  Blair Academy, The College of Wooster, and the University of Michigan.

In the coming months, Chelsea Update will feature individual Willard H. Johnson Scholarship recipients with local ties to highlight what they’re doing now.

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4 thoughts on “Pay it Forward Principle: 21 years and counting of Willard H. Johnson Scholarships”

  1. Will,

    Had no idea of this, and congratulations ! What a very, very kind and generous action on your part. All the best in good wishes to you,

    Doug Peters (a voice from way back in the day)
    Charlevoix, Mi.

  2. I think Will Johnson makes a great impact on more than even the scholarship recipients. Two of my children have had excellent opportunities through Washtenaw Technical Middle College. Mr. Johnson spoke at my daughter’s graduation from there and later she was a recipient of a scholarship award.

    I am hoping the COVID delays of graduation this year will not keep Mr. Johnson from speaking at my son’s WTMC graduation when it happens. He is truly an inspiration to many.

    Thank you so much for your continued support of our youth. You certainly give them a model to strive for.

  3. Hi Will,
    This is Lyna Swihart/Silcock (now Henman). I worked for Betty Kendall during my career at Chelsea before moving on to work for Trinity and my parents Earl and Dorothy both retired from Chelsea.

    I happened across the story of the scholarships and was fascinated by it. You were always a great leader and took time for anyone working at Chelsea. How wonderful for you to pay it forward!

    I am still working for the Trinity system and am able to use my knowledge and skills learned at Chelsea. I’m hoping you are enjoying retirement and are staying healthy in these times. Would love to connect! Wishing you the best!

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