Roanoke College received a .5 million bequest from the estate of the late Mary Ellen Hardin Smith, of Roanoke. This gift, the second largest by an individual in College history, will endow the Shields Johnson Scholarship, to provide financial assistance for students from the Roanoke Valley. The scholarship is established in honor of Smith’s first husband, the late Shields Johnson, a 1931 graduate of Roanoke College and a former reporter, business manager, and vice president and general manager with Times-World Corp.
“This scholarship, born in the mind of Mary Ellen Hardin Smith decades ago, will now make education more affordable to students from the Roanoke Valley for years into the future,” Roanoke College President Michael Maxey said. “Her commitment to the Roanoke Valley and to the education of students was exemplary and Roanoke College is honored to establish this scholarship according to her wishes.”
Brenda Poggendorf, vice president of enrollment, said the gift “will impact students in significant ways as these scholarships will help top students from the area realize their dream of a Roanoke education.”
Smith, the former Mary Ellen Hardin, met Johnson when they were both students at Roanoke College. Smith was a charter member of Roanoke College’s Society of 1842, the leadership group for those who leave a gift to the college in their will. The group was established in 1982 and today includes 840 members.
“She was a great believer in education,” family friend Lucy Ellett said of Smith. “She loved to garden, she loved animals and she loved her church. She was a good friend to many and had a wonderful sense of humor. She lived modestly but was generous in donations to causes she believed in.”
Smith was a charter member of South Roanoke United Methodist Church. She joined the church with her mother in 1924, the year it was founded. She was active in the Sunday school and in the United Methodist Women’s group. Johnson belonged to South Roanoke UMC as well.
“She was a very generous person,” said Penny Haynes, of South Roanoke United Methodist. Smith donated furnishings to the church parsonage and the church parlor. “I knew Mary Ellen for 34 years, and she was a very fine lady,” Haynes said. “She will definitely be missed at South Roanoke UMC.” Smith lived at Brandon Oaks in Roanoke before she died in June 2009.
Johnson was active in serving his Alma Mater with distinction. At Roanoke College, Johnson was president of the Maroon Club, president of the General Alumni Association, national chairman of the annual fund, class chairman. He served on four capital campaign committees. In 1967, he was one of the first 12 recipients of the Roanoke College Medal, the highest honor bestowed on Roanoke alumni. He was very active in the Roanoke Valley as well. He served as the president of Junior Achievement of the Roanoke Valley, the Roanoke Rotary Club, and was a director of the YMCA.
When Johnson died in 1976, the local newspaper said, “His contribution to Roanoke is one that will be labeled legendary.” In another article, the same newspaper said, “His dedication to and his capacity for work for his business, his church, his college and all the good causes he allied himself with will perhaps never be equaled in this valley.”