Susu and George Johnson Honored with New Plaza, New Traditions
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Susu and George Johnson Honored with New Plaza, New Traditions

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Local leaders, students, family members and friends gathered at Converse College Saturday to dedicate a new plaza in honor of local philanthropists Susan “Susu” Phifer Johnson ’65 and her husband, George Dean Johnson Jr.

The dedication was a surprise to the honorees, who thought they were there merely to celebrate the completion of “The Converse Way,” a new pathway and tradition that emphasizes the college’s core values.

An engraving on a stone at the entrance of The Johnson Plaza, which sits on the front quad across from Converse’s historic Wilson Hall, encourages all who walk the pathway to follow the Johnsons’ example by having a “positive impact” on the community.

“We were so thrilled to be able to do this,” said Converse President Betsy Fleming. “It has been so hard to keep it a secret. (The Johnsons) have done so much to sustain the college. It is really fun and special to start a new tradition here on campus.”

The pathway starts at Twichell Auditorium and weaves its way around the Johnson Plaza. It is symbolic of the path taken by the Converse founders to create a distinctive college experience and a reminder for all those who love the college to support it.

Students and alumni can toss a penny on the seal in honor of their alma mater’s seven core values—excellence, integrity, exploration, diversity, respect, community and progress—and make a wish for prosperity.

A focal point of the plaza, which was previously an unused patch of grass, is a large version of the college’s seal etched in stone.

Students and alumni can toss a penny on the seal in honor of their alma mater’s seven core values—excellence, integrity, exploration, diversity, respect, community and progress—and make a wish for prosperity. To set foot on the seal is considered disrespectful.

The plaza’s brick walkway is lined with dianthuses, hydrangeas, encore azaleas, Korean boxwoods, rosemary plants, serviceberry trees, irises, a weeping redbud, knockout roses and a handful of other plants. In the spring, most of the plants will bloom in purple, Converse’s official color, said Clint Rigsby, senior landscape architect for Seamon Whiteside, the plaza’s designer.

Fleming said it was fitting that the plaza be named for a couple who have propelled the college forward for decades.

She said the Johnsons have invested in every aspect of the college, from endowment faculty funds and student scholarships to academic programs and facilities. They have given to several of Converse’s capital projects, including Phifer Science Hall, the Montgomery Student Center renovation and The Heath, a $12.3 million apartment housing facility that opened in 2011.

“Decades from now, those who love and support this institution will look back with reverence on the progress the Johnsons helped Converse achieve.”

In 1998, when the school was without a president, the couple issued The Johnson Challenge, where they pledged to give $15 million if the college could match their donation. The challenge was met and exceeded, generating more than $50 million in nine months, Fleming said.

The Johnsons also have both led Converse’s board of trustees. Susu is a life trustee. In 1997, the college presented the couple with the Dexter Edgar Converse Award, the institution’s highest honor.

“Decades from now, those who love and support this institution will look back with reverence on the progress the Johnsons helped Converse achieve,” Fleming said.

The Johnsons said they were deeply moved by the gesture and surprised. They explained their commitment to giving back to their community.

“Our parents, on both sides, were very involved in the community and committed themselves to giving back,” said Susu Johnson, who graduated from Converse in 1965. “They instilled in us a sense of responsibility to do the same. We consider ourselves fortunate to be able to do this.”

Converse hasn’t been the only institution touched by the Johnsons’ gifts. Over the years, the couple has continued to champion efforts to improve the quality of education across Spartanburg County.

“(Giving back) is about investing in the community,” said George Dean Johnson Jr., a prominent entrepreneur and namesake for the University of South Carolina Upstate’s business school in downtown. “When you do that, everyone benefits.”

This story was written by Trevor Anderson of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Photo credit Chris Guy.