Kenneth Johnson's plaque at the Hall of Carthage Heroes at the Fair Acres Family Y calls him a “Community Servant.”

Kenneth Johnson's plaque at the Hall of Carthage Heroes at the Fair Acres Family Y calls him a “Community Servant.”
It also says: “Kenny Johnson is a devoted public servant who is a modern-day Carthage Hero.”
Johnson died on Sunday of natural causes leaving behind a legacy of service in Carthage and across Missouri, according to those who knew him well.
“He was a good mayor and good council member,” said current Carthage Mayor Mike Harris. “If you look through his background he's been community minded forever because he served on practically every board, every function possible.”

Friendship and respect
Johnson, who spent more than 40 years working for the Missouri Department of Transportation before his retirement in 1989, served on the Carthage City Council from 1990-1994, then was elected Mayor of Carthage in 1998, serving two terms.
While he was not serving in elected office, Johnson was serving on a variety of community boards and organizations, including the Park Board, the Board of Public Works and the Carthage Water & Electric Plant Board.
CW&EP General Manager Chuck Bryant recalled many times when he and Johnson rode in cars together to various conferences in Missouri and the surrounding states.
Bryant said Johnson had a nation-wide reputation among those who manage public utilities across America.
“He was well respected all over the state and the country with regards to his involvement in public power and what goes on with municipal utilities,” Bryant said. “He was a supporter of (CW&EP) but he also had the respect of other utilities in cities like Springfield and Independence and Columbia. Those folks all knew him but also people in utilities like Memphis and Folks in San Antonio and the Kissimmee, Florida area and Minnesota, those folks were all aware of him and what he had been involved in.”
Bryant, who joined CW&EP in 1996, knew Johnson professionally but also got to know him personally.
Bryant recalled one occasion a couple of years ago when he drove with Johnson to a conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota and the two took a side trip to Hamline University, where Johnson went to school many years before.
“We walked around campus and visited some of his old stomping grounds and saw a house where he had lived in with some roommates,” Bryant said. “Kenny was a standout athlete, baseball, basketball and football and they wanted him to come play basketball, and they had just won the national championship for small division schools. They wanted him to come play basketball and the football coach wanted him to play football so he was heavily recruited at the time. He stayed there for a while, but left and went into the military and served in Korea and did his part there. But it was certainly a memorable experience to go back to an area where that he remembered so fondly and kind of go back and relive that experience with him.”

Community service
Richard Walter, retired district engineer for MoDOT, got his start with the agency working under Johnson in Butler, Mo., when the state was building the four-lane Highway 71 from Kansas City south.
“He had ways of teaching you, you better do what you're told and I had a lot of respect for him,” Walter said. “He was good about dealing with people, both the people who worked for him and the contractors.”
Walter recalled in the early 2000s when he was the District Engineer in the Joplin office and he proposed the construction of the roundabout at Grand Avenue, Airport Drive and Fairlawn Drive in south Carthage.
At that time, roads converged on one spot from five different directions, and they were all being controlled by traffic signals.
“His initial reaction, and the reaction of many in Carthage was, I don't think so,” Walter said. “Kenny was Mayor and he said, I'll check it out. MoDOT had tried to improve the flow there for years and it seemed nothing really worked too well. The people were frustrated because nothing worked and they were willing to give us a chance. In some ways Kenny kind of took a chance. He was wanting to know if I thought it would work and I told him in this particular situation, I thought it would work great. He took a chance partly because he knew me and I always appreciated that.”
City Administrator Tom Short said Johnson was skeptical of the roundabout at first because he had gotten stuck in a roundabout in Boston, Mass., and wasn't sure it was the right answer for that intersection.
“When they were done with it, he was its biggest supporter,” Short said. “As Mayor he was always looking our for what was best for the city. He was a big help to city staff, helping work with state agencies, particularly MoDOT.”

A son's perspective
Johnson's son, Steve Johnson, said his father was proud of his work as Mayor but he was community minded everywhere he lived.
“I hadn't thought about it until later in life but I've spent my professional career in the not-for-profit, mental health field and in a sense, giving back to making life better for folks,” Steve Johnson said. “It didn't occur to me earlier in life that that's probably where that came from, was his attitude because he always believed in giving back.”
Steve Johnson said his father came from a hard background, growing up in the Great Depression in a family that was dirt poor all his life.
“Times were so hard, people were poor, and he never forgot that,” Steve Johnson said. “There's a biblical phrase about doing what you can for the least of these my brothers, I think that's where all that service he liked to do came from.”
Steve Johnson said his father's legacy of giving will outlast his lifetime. Kenneth Johnson is leaving some of his assets to the Family Literacy Council, to the Carthage Public Library and Grace Episcopal Church.
“Reading was very, very important to him,” Steve Johnson said. “He wanted to support reading for everyone, so that's why the library and literacy council are getting something and that's where we're requesting donations.”
Mayor Harris summed up what most people think about Kenny Johnson.
“He'll be missed and he was a great man.”