Belmont University announced today the receipt of more than $10 million from the estate of the late Ed and Bernice Johnson, long-time friends of the university.
For 16 years, Ed and Bernice Johnson ran a neighborhood gas station on Belmont Boulevard. During the Depression, the couple often helped Herman Lay keep his potato chip trucks on the road by allowing him to pay on credit. In 1948, Lay offered the Johnsons a chance to buy stock in his company. The couple’s initial investment of $8,000 grew exponentially with the company, which is now part of Frito-Lay and Pepsi-Co Inc. Following Bernice Johnson’s death in January 1998 (her husband died in 1994), $8 million from the Johnson estate was given to Belmont and directed toward scholarships in the College of Business Administration, primarily for accounting students. Additional funds from the Johnson estate were placed in a 10-year charitable remainder annuity trust, and those accumulated monies, $10 million, are now being released to Belmont, making the couple’s total bequest to the university equal more than $18 million. This represents one of the largest gifts in the history of Belmont University.
Belmont President Dr. Bob Fisher said, “It should come as no surprise to anyone to discover the generosity of the late Ed and Bernice Johnson, a couple who believed in and supported a friend even in difficult financial times. Their remarkable philanthropic spirit will now benefit a new generation of students and future leaders. Belmont University is very grateful for this gift and extremely proud to be associated with such a dynamic legacy.”
The $10 million from the trust will be directed into the general university endowment. The original $8 million donation was placed in the Lawrence Glover Scholarship Fund, which honors retired Belmont accounting professor Lawrence Glover, who once served as the Johnsons’ accountant and first recommended Belmont as a worthy investment.
In 2004, Belmont honored Ed and Bernice Johnson with the unveiling of an original statue by Nashville sculptor Russ Faxon, which now graces the plaza on the Belmont Boulevard side of the campus adjacent to the fountain in front of the entrance to the Maddox Grand Atrium. The site is directly across the street from the Circle K convenience store, which sits on the site of a previous Esso gas station that was owned by the Johnsons. The statue portrays the Johnsons waving goodbye to a student.
About Ed and Bernice Johnson
From 1939-55, Ed and Bernice Johnson owned and operated an Esso station at the southwest corner of Belmont Boulevard and Portland Avenue, where the Circle K market and gas station is now located across from the Belmont campus. In 1932, a South Carolina man named Herman Lay became the Nashville deliveryman for Atlanta-based Barrett Food Products, delivering chips from Barrett’s Nashville plant to restaurants and groceries all over Tennessee and Kentucky. In 1939, he bought Barrett’s Nashville distributorship and renamed it H.W. Lay Distribution Co. It was located across the street from the Johnson’s Esso station.
Times were tough for Lay’s business, and his credit account at the Esso often kept his trucks running when they might otherwise not have been able to. The business relationship between the Johnsons and Lay became a friendship. In 1948, when Lay raised $40,000 through a stock sale and bought Barrett Food Products, one of his biggest investors was Ed Johnson, who bought $8,000 worth of stock. Bernice wasn’t happy, once recalled the late Peg Grow, who was the Johnsons’ niece and served as a member of the Belmont University Board of Regents. “She cried for more than a day. This was their life savings and she was not a risk-taker. But my uncle believed in Herm Lay and, as other investors sold their stock, he would buy it.”
H.W. Lay Distribution Co. merged with The Frito Company in 1961 to become Frito-Lay, Inc. In 1965, it merged with the Pepsi-Cola Company.
The Johnsons sold the Esso station in 1955, breaking their everyday contact with the university for a decade until they enlisted the services of a CPA, Lawrence Glover, who taught at Belmont, fueling their interest in the college. In December 1983, the Johnsons sent Belmont an unsolicited donation of $10,000. Former Belmont president William E. Troutt recalls that the gift was unusual, especially being unsolicited, “So, I made a point of going to the Johnsons to thank them personally.”
The meeting made an impact on the Johnsons, and a new friendship was formed. A few years later, they honored their longtime friend and accountant by establishing the Lawrence Glover Scholarship Fund. “They didn’t want to take any credit for any of their generosity, but one of their greatest pleasures was meeting the students they were helping,” Grow recalled.
Ed Johnson died on December 31, 1994. In 1996, Belmont honored Bernice Johnson with its highest honor by inducting her into Collegiatus, the university’s equivalent of an honorary doctorate. That same year she established a nursing scholarship at Belmont. Bernice Johnson died on January 26, 1998. Belmont University became a main beneficiary of the Johnson estate, along with the Salvation Army and McKendree Village.