Belmont University honored two of its biggest benefactors with the unveiling Saturday of a new sculpture in honor of the late Ed and Bernice Johnson, prominent Nashvillians and longtime friends of the university whose bequests to the university total more than $25 million. The statue by Nashville sculptor Russ Faxon 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. The store was previously owned by the Johnsons, who also were early investors in Lay Food Products. Over the years, the Johnson made a series of Lay stock donations to Belmont University estimated to be worth about $25 million, making their donations the largest gift in the school’s history.
The statue portrays the Johnsons waving goodbye to a student. It is located near the fountain already in place near the entrance to the Maddox Grand Atrium.
The artist, Russ Faxon, operates Selah Studio in the historic Bell Buckle, Tennessee., and creates bronze figures through the process known as “Lost Wax”. His creations both small and large are in private and corporate collections across the United States and Europe. He has done commissioned works for Abilene Christian University, Calsonic International, the State of Tennessee, Northern Telecom, The Korean War Memorial of Tennessee, the city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Opryland, USA, Cracker Barrel Inc., Tullahoma Fine Arts Center, Bank of America and CNL Corporation of Orlando, Florida
You can click either photo for a larger view.
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 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 Product, 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 Accounting Scholarship.
“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 Manor. As investments mature in the next few years, Belmont will receive gifts from the Johnson estate expected to exceed $25 million, making it the largest scholarship gift ever received by Belmont and one of the largest ever to any college or university in the Southeast.