Leaving his mark
Perdue among those to honor longtime FFA leader

COVINGTON - One of the state's foremost leaders in agricultural education was honored Friday afternoon at the Georgia FFA-FCCLA Center.

A new 4,500-square-foot, 64-bed cabin was dedicated in honor of Melvin H. Johnson, who served as director of the FFA camp for 17 years and made many strides toward improving agricultural education during the last 30 years.

So noteworthy have been Johnson's accomplishments that Gov. Sonny Perdue was a speaker at the 4 p.m. ceremony, which took place at the center's Mobley Hall.

"Melvin, I hope you understand this is just a small testament of the respect, admiration and gratitude the people of Georgia have for you," Perdue said, noting the several hundred people in attendance.

Perdue said Johnson "came along in a time when many thought agriculture wasn't very cool anymore.

"You hung in there with the knowledge and wisdom that agriculture was still important ... On behalf of all Georgians, I want to thank you for the effort you put forth," he said.

State Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, who serves as co-chair of the Agricultural Education Advisory Commission, called Johnson "the white knight who rode in to help save our program a few years ago back when we needed some guidance and some vision."

Johnson served as camp director at the center from 1979 to 1996. During his tenure, he expanded the dining hall and meeting rooms, renovated semi-private cabins and other buildings, improved recreation facilities and helped obtain funds for camp improvements. When the Olympics were held in Atlanta in 1996, Johnson secured a large German delegation to stay at the camp, which brought enough funds for new cabins and further expansion.

Johnson became State Director of Agricultural Education in 1996. His work resulted in the restoration of funding for critical program components. In 1997, he envisioned the Curriculum Renewal Project, resulting in a new edition of the Agricultural Education Curriculum and Resource CD. He also directed the development and implementation of program standards adopted by the State Board of Education.

Johnson's other accomplishments include providing computer technology for teachers and staff, activation of the FFA Foundation, approval of Agriscience for science credit and a 39.5 increase percent in FFA membership.

He also guided development of the industry certification program and the 2020 Vision for Agricultural Education.

He was honored in 1999 as the National Outstanding State Supervisor. He retired in January 2000.

"Mr. Johnson is a person who leaves his mark wherever he goes," said District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, speaking on behalf of the county and, he noted, as a personal friend of Johnson's. "This camp is a better place than it was when Mr. Johnson came here as camp director many years ago, and I can assure you Newton County is a better place to be because Mr. Johnson left his mark."

The Melvin H. Johnson cabin is a new "first-class" facility that will allow the camp to house large groups together, said Director Todd Teasley. Most cabins on the property sleep 28 campers, whereas this one will more than double that capacity.

"This is basically two cabins pushed together with a door separating the compartments," Teasley said. "It allows us to have bigger groups of students. We have the option now of being able to put all of them together."

During his brief speech, Johnson deflected attention to his supporters, including family and former co-workers.

"It's not about me. It's about the great people of this state and agriculture. You can take agriculture and build young people into strong men and women," he said.

Perdue said the cabin will serve as a lasting reminder of Johnson's legacy.

"This is something that will live on as kids in the future come to this place and see the Melvin Johnson cabin. They may not know the story, but they'll know the life that has gone before that has allowed them to reach their dreams and potential," Perdue said.

The cabin was funded through a $900,000 appropriation by the Georgia General Assembly and donations from individual and group sponsors.

"(The governor) has been a big supporter of the camp. He had a lot to do with us getting the funding," Teasley said.

A second cabin that will also be partially funded through state money will get underway soon.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.