It’s a valedictorian hat trick

Otis Johnson, second from left, strikes a pose with his three valedictorian sons, Carlton, left, Jonathan and Sheldon.

WINNSBORO – When Sheldon Johnson came home from his after-school job and told his mom, Laura Johnson, that he had been named valedictorian of his class at Fairfield Central High School, it was not the first time she had heard those words. Her other two sons had also graduated from Fairfield Central as valedictorians – a remarkable family accomplishment.

Jonathon Johnson, her oldest, was valedictorian at Fairfield Central in 2013; Carlton Johnson, her second son, was valedictorian in 2016. Sheldon, her youngest, is graduating this year. She says she and her husband, Otis, are elated by their sons’ hard work and dedication.

When her first son came home and made the announcement, Johnson headed straight to Michael’s craft store to purchase a frame for his valedictorian photo…and went ahead and purchased two others to match, just in case. Now, she’s getting ready to hang the third one underneath the other two on the living room wall.

“They’re really good boys, and we’re really proud of them,” Johnson, a certified public accountant who is also Assistant Fairfield County Administrator, said. “Each one of them made it their own personal goal.”

Ever since the second of his brothers was recognized as valedictorian, Sheldon admits he’s felt just a little bit of pressure.

“People would joke about it all the time,” he said “It just became a challenge to go through high school and become valedictorian.”

But most of the pressure he felt, he says, was the pressure he put on himself to succeed.

His next goal: graduate from Clemson University, where he will start in the fall, and earn a degree in architecture. He hopes to one day design homes, a passion that began years ago with a project in art class.

“I plan on obtaining my bachelor’s and later pursuing a master’s degree. And then, after college, hopefully I can get a job with a good company to gain a lot of experience, and maybe one day open my own firm,” he said.  “I [also] want to become a positive role model in the world and in my personal community, because I plan to come back to my community and give back.”

Otis and Laura Johnson are both Fairfield County born and raised, and, like their sons, graduated from Fairfield County schools.

Johnson said they raised their boys from the time they were small to work hard and pursue their goals. The routine and expectation in their home growing up was simple – responsibilities, like homework, had to be completed first before leisure activities were allowed.

“It was instilled in them when they were young, just getting into school, that education is important, your homework is important, and our expectation of them was that they were going to make good grades,” she said.

Laura Johnson adds to her photo collection of her valedictorian sons.

A math whiz with a degree in accounting, Johnson was the one who checked the homework, she said, and taught her sons to help each other with academics. She always made sure education was a priority in their daily schedule.

Her husband, an entrepreneur who employs around two dozen people at his commercial cleaning business, put in extra effort also, teaching them about work ethic and the importance of taking pride in every task.

“When the boys were smaller, they would come home and do their homework, and on days he had to go do a job, he actually would take them with him,” she said. “He took them with him to work to instill in them that when you get older, you work hard for anything that you have and take pride in whatever you do.”

So far, that winning combination of hard work and education has served them well. All three young men are now on track toward very bright futures.

Jonathan went on to graduate from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He was recently awarded a full scholarship to the University of Indianapolis, where he will continue his education and pursue a doctorate. He got married last year, and his wife, Celeste, is studying for a doctorate in the same program.

Carlton graduated from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and hopes to become a neurologist. He’s beginning work as a research assistant in that field at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and he’ll also be studying for the MCAT, a standardized test used in admissions to medical school.

Sheldon plans to study architecture at Clemson this fall.

Throughout their education, they often made the sacrifice of not attending some social events and activities in order to study, Johnson said.

Still, Sheldon found time to play soccer for the Griffins and undertake a rigorous academic path through the school district’s dual enrollment classes with Midlands Technical College. Among other activities and honors, he also served as president of the student body this year and president of Beta Club.

Topping off his high school academic career, he was offered scholarships to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, UNC Charlotte, North Carolina A&T., and Clemson. He also received the State Fair’s Ride of Your Life scholarship, a STEM scholarship from the Richland County Alumni Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and other scholarships offered by Clemson. 

Johnson said she expects all three of her sons will be successful – and all three have talked about making a positive impact not just on the world at large but also back home in Fairfield County.

Her advice to parents who want to raise successful children: start reading to them early. When they’re old enough to be in school, make them a daily schedule and stick to it. Encourage them in their successes daily. Help them to identify their weaknesses and work to improve in those areas. Instill a value on learning.

Her advice to students who want to succeed: Whatever it is you do in life – whether or not it’s glamorous – strive to be the best at it.

“Set a goal,” she said. “Your goal doesn’t have to be valedictorian or salutatorian. Prioritize what is important to you, and then let your actions and your steps all go toward that goal.”

Clearly, an exciting future looms for Sheldon and his two brothers, but after basking in the glory that comes with graduating at the top of his class on Saturday, Sheldon said he will be reporting back to work at the Winnsboro KFC where he has a part time job until he leaves for Clemson in August.

It’s where he’s at right now, he said, but it’s not where he’s going.

Besides carrying a full academic load, Sheldon Johnson works part time at KFC along with the class salutatorian, Brenda Kennedy. | Photo: Martha Ladd