Distinguished Alumni: Terry and Marty Johnson

By Wes McKinzie (98)

An Interview With Terry and Marty Johnson

There’s something special about Terry Johnson.

You can see it sitting in his living room in Horseshoe Bay, Texas. You can see it in casual conversation at the Blue Bonnet Café in nearby Marble Falls. 

You can see it in the way he looks at his wife, Marty (Mitchell 71) Johnson … and the way he brags on her every chance he gets. 

You can see it in the way he helped transform Oklahoma Christian during his 32 years as an administrator, including 21 as president.

His predecessor in the role, Dr. James O. Baird, saw something special in him. As Terry sought his destiny as a freshman at Southern Methodist University, a chance meeting with Baird, a follow-up letter from him, and a $100 scholarship led Terry to transfer to Oklahoma Christian in 1961.

After Terry arrived, Baird took him under his wing. He encouraged him to get involved, to not be an inaccessible snob with a SMU letter sweater, to have fun and to see that “college is much more than books and lectures.”

Thanks to Baird, Terry appeared on the cover of Teenage Christian magazine as a young undergraduate. 

As a young graduate, he earned his J.D. from SMU, then quickly moved up the ranks of OC’s administration. In 1974, he succeeded Dr. Baird as president at age 31. 

“I had the confidence of those leading the school. I was trusted to take on assignments, and I rallied to that confidence,” Dr. Johnson said. “Dr. Baird taught us what it took to be disciplined in administration. He was an exceptionally gifted administrator and won friends for the university in a wonderful way. I like to think he passed along some of his gifts to me.”

  • The Johnson Family in 1975
The Johnson Family in 1975

There’s something special about Marty Johnson.

Marty’s smile may be her greatest gift. And that’s saying something. She is a woman of many talents. 

She was Oklahoma Christian’s Homecoming queen. She is an accomplished teacher and businesswoman. But that smile is her calling card.

“Marty’s smile is the one feature that leaves an indelible impression on all who meet her,” Terry wrote in his tribute book to her, Two Parts Sunshine. “Her cheerful disposition and enthusiasm are contagious. Some people possess that gift of making each person in a group feel as if he or she is special – loved above and beyond any of the others. Marty has that gift.”

As they connected Oklahoma Christian with important friends and benefactors during their time as president and first lady, Marty was a hostess, conversationalist … and friend … without peer.

OC alumna Sherri (Buben 87) Coale, the successful women’s basketball coach at the University of Oklahoma, said Marty’s spirit, joy and zest for life gave the OC campus its “heartbeat.”

There’s something special about Oklahoma Christian.

The Johnson era saw Oklahoma Christian rise up “with wings as eagles.”

Dr. Johnson is quick to credit fellow administrators Dr. Stafford North, Guy Ross, Dr. Bailey McBride, Gary Fields and others for Oklahoma Christian’s growth during that transformative period.

“It was a great opportunity to be part of a team and do something on a team basis,” Dr. Johnson said. “We had a great team, and we stayed intact for many, many years. That continuity helped us a lot. We complemented one another and found success along the way.”

The successes included more than $100 million raised for construction, endowment and operations. 

It included the construction of the Bible building (now known as the Williams-Branch Center for Biblical Studies), the Garvey Center, the Thelma Gaylord Forum and Enterprise Square USA.

It included the expansion of the Mabee Learning Center and the Payne Athletic Center, the establishment of the engineering program and Prince Engineering Center, the start of the Vienna Studies program and the master’s degree in ministry, and the move to university status in 1990.

It featured campus visits by iconic figures and leaders like Bob Hope and Sam Walton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The elder Bush was the President of the United States when he came to campus in 1992.

“For one single event, that probably stands out more than any other,” Dr. Johnson said. “Bob Lashley, Lou Phillips and a number of others went into overdrive to make sure we were ready for that occasion. It was just a picture-perfect day. The next day, here’s this article on the front page of the New York Times featuring Oklahoma Christian. We have a lot of wonderful memories and feelings of accomplishment, but that one day was an extraordinary day.”

That era also saw the growth of Oklahoma Christian’s mission efforts, thanks to people like Dr. Ron Bever, Ralph Burcham, Dr. Elmo Hall, Dr. Darvin Keck and Joe McCormack, whom Dr. Johnson calls “unsung heroes.”

“All of that made me feel like what I was representing to other people was genuine. It wasn’t a façade. I didn’t have to apologize or feel like I was trying to put something over on anyone. This was the real Oklahoma Christian. These were real people who had a burning desire to do something good for the Lord,” Dr. Johnson said. “I think Oklahoma Christian made big advancements because people perceived that, not only it as an institution, but the people who worked there, were real and genuinely committed to the spiritual aspect of the campus.”

There’s something special about Horseshoe Bay.

The Johnsons miss their friends in Oklahoma, but they love where they are and what they’re doing now.

They travel a lot – to play golf, to see the world, to see Terry’s beloved St. Louis Cardinals, and to see OC friends like Jerry and Laura Beth Jobe and Jim and Anna Wilson.

Their home in Horseshoe Bay puts the Johnsons close to their kids and grandkids. One of their daughters, Jennifer (90), lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband Royce Clark (90) and their children. Their other daughter, Jill, lives with her husband Cary Brown in Midland, Texas.

The Johnsons live on a golf course (Marty, in particular, is a competitive golfer), and they play often as a way to relax and reach out to their neighbors. 

“When we get bored, we jump on the golf cart and off we go,” Marty said. “We love going out in the evenings together. We look at the wildlife and take some pictures along the way. It has been fun to spend that time together. We enjoy that a lot.”

At one point, as the Johnsons described their post-OC life and their love of golf, Marty jokingly protested, “They’re going to think that all we do is play golf.” Terry deadpanned, “They already do, Marty. They already do.”

In truth, they don’t lack for things to keep them busy. 

Dr. Johnson writes books. Marty continues her work as a highly-successful executive director with Melaleuca. 

They helped the Marble Falls Church of Christ build a beautiful and functional new facility; Dr. Johnson serves there as an elder and Marty teaches classes for the little kids.

Marty is still a hostess and friend to others. She helps lead a Bible study for 40-60 women in the community. And when the Johnsons welcome guests into their home, Marty typically has cookies and other goodies waiting.

Terry and Marty remain connected to Oklahoma Christian. 

The local high school choir director, Bryce Gage (92), is an OC alumnus … and four students from Marble Falls currently attend Oklahoma Christian. 

The Johnsons are excited about the university’s momentum and the alumni who continue to make a difference in the world.

“It’s been fun to watch this school grow, be mature and be established. It’s done awfully well,” Marty said. “We meet so many of the former students in our travels. That’s been a great thrill. One of our greatest joys is to see how well a lot of those students that have graduated from Oklahoma Christian have done. They’re working for the Lord, working for the church and leading good lives.”

And that’s truly something special.

Fall 2011

View more stories from the Fall 2011 issue of Vision magazine.