Golden Class of 1966 Celebrates Milestone During Claflin’s 146th Commencement
May 09, 2016
It was 1966. Gas was 32 cents a gallon. Protesters were demonstrating against the Vietnam War. A first-class stamp was 5 cents. The Temptations hit No. 1 with “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” and “Ain’t to Proud to Beg.”
During the weekend, alumni from Claflin’s 1966 graduation class came back to celebrate their Golden Anniversary Reunion as members of the “Golden Class.” Among them were Bernice Johnson, who was also celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary, and the Rev. Dr. John Elliott.
Johnson, a retired elementary school educator who now lives in Newport News, Va., has not been back to campus since her 25th class reunion. At the urging of her friends and classmates, she decided to return for this weekend’s celebration.
“When I was here 25 years ago, I could not believe how much things had changed. I am in awe of the campus. I am so proud of Claflin.”
On the other hand, Elliott, who still lives in Orangeburg, has seen the campus grow and develop over the years.
“Times have changed so much. Back then you could not walk around holding a girl’s hand,” he joked. “The changes have been good for the University, but Claflin still holds true to its core values.”
More than 30 members of the Class of 1966 attended the weekend’s reunion events. The group kicked off its celebration with a get-acquainted hour on Friday, followed by lunch hosted by Claflin President Henry N. Tisdale and First Lady Alice Carson Tisdale. Friday concluded with the baccalaureate convocation and a Golden Class Social. On Saturday, activities began with the reunion breakfast and a photo session leading up to Claflin’s 146th Commencement Convocation. Members of the class marched in the procession wearing gold academic regalia and they were presented Golden Diplomas during the commencement convocation. The weekend of events concluded with a farewell reception.
A native of Wilmington, N.C., Johnson followed her older brother and sister to Claflin.
She initially majored in elementary education, but after the death of her father, she switched to music.
“He was a Baptist minister and I would play for him in the church,” said Johnson, the youngest of 11 children. “He always encouraged me to play the piano so, in honor of him, I changed my major to general music.”
Johnson spent her professional life as an elementary school music teacher. After following her husband who was in the U.S. Army to different locations; they finally settled in Newport News, Va.
Just last weekend, the Johnsons celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a party hosted by their children, Tiffany, William III, and Warren.
Bernice Johnson married William E. Johnson, Jr., her high school sweetheart, on April 30, 1966 and graduated on May 25 -- less than a month later. William joined the military the same day Bernice left Wilmington for Claflin. At the time, he was stationed in Georgia and would often catch the bus to Orangeburg to visit Bernice. On this particular weekend visit, William came to town with a proposal.
“He told me he was headed to Kansas and that he wasn’t accepting no for an answer,” Johnson said. “He said when I leave town this weekend you will be Mrs. William E. Johnson, Jr.”
After the wedding, Johnson called her mother. “My mother was extremely displeased,” Johnson recalled. “She cried for 15 minutes. She wanted to me finish school first, and I promised I would. My parents were older and they wanted to make sure I would be able to take care of myself.”
Johnson earned her degree and moved with her husband to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They traveled across the country, William was sent to Vietnam and Bernice headed home. They finally settled and started a family.
Elliott came to Claflin because of its affiliation with The United Methodist Church. “I was raised by my grandmother and she attended Claflin,” said Elliott, adding that his son and granddaughter are also Claflin alumni. “My grandfather was a strong Methodist, and it was a Methodist tradition to go to Claflin so that’s what I did. They also have an outstanding religion and philosophy program.”
Elliott, who retired about five years ago, remembers when Claflin assigned a student or employee to ring a bell to signal the change of classes. Because he had taken some engineering classes in high school, he was part of the team that installed the first electronic bell system.
After earning his degree at Claflin, Elliott enrolled in the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He also received a master’s in divinity from Emory University’s Chandler School of Theology, a doctorate of divinity from the Teamer School of Theology in Charlotte and a doctorate in divinity metaphysics at the New York School of Theology. Elliott spent his life preaching and building United Methodist churches in South Carolina. He spent the last 24 years at St. George Parrish which consists of Shady Grove, St. Mark, and Trinity United Methodist churches.
“My name is John, and they must have thought it was John Wesley,” he said, referring to one of the three founders of The United Methodist Church movement. “Whenever they needed a church to be built, they called on me.”
Bernice Johnson spent her time building her family before returning to teach. She credits her time at Claflin with preparing her for a successful career.
“Claflin was small but the faculty and staff created a nurturing environment,” Johnson said, adding that the doors to the dorm were locked every day at 6 p.m. “If you wanted to go to the library, you had to sign out. If you were a freshman you couldn’t go to the library without a senior escort.”
Johnson’s family missed the wedding, but all were there for the graduation. This weekend, husband William was too ill to travel, but Johnson was accompanied by her daughter and great niece.
Although Elliott’s wife Willa Dean was unable to attend the reunion and he lost his vision a few years ago, he was still excited and enjoyed renewing old acquaintances.
“I would not have missed this weekend for anything.”