The following article about retired United States Army Brigadier General Walter F. Johnson III first appeared in State magazine, West Virginia State University's flagship publication.
Retired United States Army Brigadier General Walter F. Johnson III has always been a leader.
Whether it be as a point guard on the basketball court, or as quarterback of the football team for Immaculate Conception High School in Charleston, S.C., Johnson has earned the respect and admiration of those around him.
The 1961 graduate of West Virginia State spent 27 years in the U.S. Army, rising to the highest rank he could achieve, before retiring from the service to launch a second career as a highly successful international businessman and entrepreneur.
Today, he and his wife and best friend, Doris, divide time between homes in Florida and South Carolina, and visiting with their six children and 14 grandchildren. It has been quite a journey for Johnson; one that he writes about in “I Can Do That: Advice for Spiritual Entrepreneurs,” and shares in public talks.
“We have been given a lot” Johnson wrote in his book, “and I’m fully aware of God’s admonition that much is expected of me in return.” To that end, today, the Johnsons spend their time working on a variety of social causes and projects to ensure that future generations will also have access to opportunities.
“I grew up in public housing in Charleston, S.C.,” said Johnson during a visit to Institute for Homecoming 2014. “I had a very good education not only from my school, but from my family and neighbors. I had a lot of very positive people around me. My dad was a major influence on me.”
Growing up, Johnson was always industrious. He started delivering newspapers in Charleston, S.C., at an early age and was so successful that he took second place in a city-wide contest for developing new subscribers.
Johnson credits his paper route with helping him develop his salesmanship and entrepreneurship at an early age. In 1988, Johnson was named to the International Circulation Managers Association Newspaper Carrier Hall of Fame.
“Having a paper route teaches you discipline,” he said. “Trust me, if you didn’t deliver the papers on time there were older subscribers there waiting on you for their paper.”
Johnson attended Immaculate Conception, an African-American high school, and performed well in the classroom and in athletic competition. He said that he had ambitions to go to Howard University when his school’s principal stepped in and mentioned West Virginia State College may be a better option for the young Johnson.
“I had not heard of West Virginia State College, and I had never been to West Virginia,” Johnson said. “(But) the principal of my school talked about the strong faculty that we had here, and my dad had a good friend that had gone to West Virginia State.”
Johnson arrived in Institute and was impressed by what he found.
“Two things struck me – first, the professors cared about you as a student. They took an interest in you. These professors really cared about you as an individual and wanted you to succeed not just in their class but in life,” he said. “Second, here I was this just-turned-18-year-old-kid and the professors would say ‘Mr. Johnson this’ and ‘Mr. Johnson that.’ Here I was a kid out of the projects of Charleston, S.C. That really struck me.”
During his time in State, Johnson was active in ROTC and also played saxophone in the school’s band. In addition, he was active in student government, serving as vice president of his junior class, and also served as president of the campus Catholic club. He lived on campus in Gore Hall for four years.
Johnson graduated in 1961 with a degree in zoology and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps.
He said, at the time, he thought he would stay in the service for two years, but two years became four, and Johnson began to rise through the ranks. In all, he would stay in the service for 27 years and achieve the rank of Brigadier General with command of 5,000 officers in the Medical Service Corps. He was the first African-American to hold this position, and also the youngest.
He was inducted in the West Virginia State University ROTC Hall of Fame in 1985, one of 15 former members of the Yellow Jacket Battalion who achieved the rank of general during their service.
He said his time at West Virginia State prepared him well for his military career, and later work in the business arena.
“West Virginia State gave me a solid foundation academically and also taught me how to deal with people and how to deal with life,” he said. “The staff and faculty were concerned about making you a well-rounded individual. They prepared us so very well.”
When he retired from the service in 1988, Johnson went to work as a regional director for the American Hospital Association. He later became vice president of the Association, before leaving in 1993 to become the President of the Institute for Diversity in Health Management.
But Johnson had always harbored dreams of having his own business, and in 1996, after long talks and consultations with Doris, he launched Eagle Group International Inc., a full-service health care consulting firm with major civilian, federal and international practices.
Over the next 12 years, Eagle Group grew from a start-up family operation to a successful enterprise with over $150 million in annual revenue, and more than 1,500 employees in 30 different states and seven foreign countries. In 2008, the family sold the company to Lockheed Martin Corp.
During his military and subsequent business career, Johnson said he did not maintain much of a connection to West Virginia State – that changed with the arrival of then-President Brian O. Hemphill in 2012.
Johnson said he was at an event and was introduced to then-President shortly after Hemphill came to the University. He said he was impressed by the President’s vision and liked what he heard.
The Johnsons are supporting the vision for the University through their donation of $750,000 to establish a scholarship for WVSU students majoring in business and students in the ROTC program.
Johnson sums up his and his wife’s philosophy to support the University simply.
“It’s not the taking, it’s the giving that is important,” he said.