Who was Reuben Johnson?
Reuben Johnson Elementary School opened its doors to McKinney children in 1997 and consistently reaches exemplary status because of the hard work and dedication of its faculty and students. And it seems exemplary is also the most fitting description of the character and integrity of the school’s namesake.
“I remember Reuben as a person with so much integrity and character,” said Perry Graham, a community leader and longtime friend of Johnson. “He was a wonderful, strong man who ran a tight ship at home and school.” Graham, who met Johnson in 1979 when he moved his family to McKinney, said, “I’m not very tall, but I’m taller than Reuben. But I always looked up to him.” The two men got to know each other because their sons were playing sports together. “I watched him live by the motto, ‘it’s best to do what’s right rather than what’s popular.’ He led his life like that and ran his schools like that,” Graham said.
Johnson was a product of a McKinney upbringing and education. And he paid back his community by dedicating 37 years of his life to a career in education, including 28 of those years in McKinney schools.
Johnson was born in 1926 and graduated from Doty High School, McKinney’s all-black high school. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II aboard a destroyer off the coast of Okinawa. After his return form the military he received his bachelor’s degree from Texas College in Tyler. It’s not always opposites that attract. Johnson met Evelyn while at Texas College and he married the fellow educator. The couple began leaving their mark on education immediately.
In addition to Texas College, Johnson also received a certificate of approval for superintendents and principals issued by the State Department of Education and earned a master’s degree from Texas Southern University in Houston. After graduation from college, he was employed as supervisor for County Schools of Collin County. He also served as principal of Community School in Josephine.
But he wasn’t alone in Josephine. His longtime friend and classmate Leonard Evans, who still serves the education community by serving on the Board of Trustees for the McKinney Independent School District, joined him there. His wife, Evelyn, also taught in Community schools before the two came to McKinney ISD. “Their journey through life is such a beautiful story,” Graham said of Reuben and Evelyn. “Right after Reuben retired, he told Mrs. Johnson he was going to retire, and he said, ‘I want you to come home with me.” It was one of the sweetest things I’d ever heard.”
The Johnsons retired from McKinney schools in 1986. Reuben retired as the principal at Burks Elementary and Evelyn had spent 25 years as a first-grade teacher with her last years at Finch Elementary. “He was an all-around man who touched the lives of his students,” Mrs. Johnson said. “He was interested in the welfare of the children and wanted the best for all students so they could be positive achievers throughout life.” He played a vital role in the integration of the McKinney school district, as he served as the first black principal following the end of segregation in the area in the 1960’s. “Integrating the schools went well in McKinney,” Mrs. Johnson recalled. “It was a smooth transition thanks to the attitude of all the people. Everyone was very positive toward integration.”
Arthur McNeil vividly remembers Johnson and his tenure with McKinney ISD. “I remember Reuben Johnson came to McKinney serving as principal at E.S. Doty High School and also principal of the elementary school held at Doty after the first phase of integration in McKinney, McNeil said. According to McNeil, after the elementary school closed, Johnson served as assistant principal at Slaughter Middle School, Caldwell Intermediate School, McKinney High School, and finally was named principal at Burks Elementary when Dean Bennett retired.
Johnson, McNeil, and Bennett have something in common. Their legacies in education have all been honored by MISD through the naming of elementary campuses. McNeil said Johnson’s list of accomplishments was long because of his commitment to quality education. He was honored for his community service and received an appreciation award as an outstanding leader working with the “Boy Scouts of America.”
“I worked with Reuben Johnson when he was assistant principal at McKinney High School,” McNeil said. “Reuben Johnson taught me more about human relations and leadership than any college or workshops that I have attended. He was committed. He was a leader. He was sure of his own commitment to quality and was willing to be public about it,” McNeil continued. “Reuben Johnson had a vision or direction for McKinney ISD, which included quality in all aspects, and he created a framework in the workplace for quality activities to take place.”
Graham recalled an instance when Reuben Johnson’s commitment was evident. “When he found out the first aid kit at the Doty school consisted of rubbing alcohol and tape, he reached into his own pocket and bought real medical supplies,” Graham said.
While Leonard Evans was head coach and Johnson was principal at Doty High School, one of Johnson’s first decisions was to ask Evans to haul all the worn out athletic equipment to the city dump because it was the equipment he and Evans had used as students. Johnson wouldn’t settle for more hand-me-downs from the McKinney High School and eventually purchased all new equipment for Doty players.
In addition to his school service, he was an active member of St. James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church serving as Sunday School Superintendent, on the Steward Board and in the choir.
He and Evelyn have two sons who graduated from McKinney High School. Scott is a registered pharmacist and Dreand, a graduate of Texas Southern University, is teaching history on the college level in Tomball. Graham says you can’t talk about Johnson’s attributes without talking about the entire Johnson family because “they are a family in every sense of the word.”
“Reuben could not have achieved everything he did without the support of his wife, who is the real definition of a lady,” Graham said. “And his boys truly reflect the values passed on by their parents.”
About the author: Jean Ann Collins is a freelance writer and journalism teacher at McKinney High School. She and her husband, Brent, have two children, Kyle and Colt.