“Nobody loves Olivet more than Mary Johnson,” said Pamela Vail, adopted daughter of Mary Jean Purinton Johnson. At 99 years old, Johnson is the eldest alumna of Olivet. She was born in 1917 in Danville, Ill., and graduated from Olivet in 1940.
Johnson never actually attended the current Olivet Nazarene University, but she went to school at Old Olivet College. During her senior year, the historic campus fire in 1939 caused her class to take a bus to their graduation that was held at Olivet’s current campus, in front of Miller Hall, which is now known as the Miller Business Center.
During this year’s Homecoming weekend, Johnson returned to Olivet for her 76th reunion. On that Sunday, she attended the President’s Prayer Breakfast that took place in Chalfant Hall.
“She has only missed two Homecomings. Her friends are no longer alive, but their children will come up to her and introduce themselves,” Johnson’s grandson senior Dustin Vail said. “She is proud to be the oldest alumna. She will introduce herself to others and tell them ‘Hi, I’m Mary Johnson and I am Olivet’s oldest alumna.’”
During her college years, Johnson was the Treasurer of her class and was involved with photography for the Aurora yearbook. Back then, students’ yearbook pictures were accompanied by two adjectives that described the kind of person that they were.
“Her adjectives were ‘outgoing’ and ‘friendly.’ She loved people and documenting them through photos,” Dustin said.
Pamela shared several memories that revealed the differences between when Johnson attended Olivet and now.
Johnson’s tuition was $220 each semester and as her college career came to an end, she did not know what she wanted to do after graduation. She was asked if she wanted to become a teacher, so after shadowing a teacher for 16 days, she was able to receive her teaching certificate.
Instead of hiring professionals to work at Olivet, students had to do all of the chores around campus, whether it was to cook, wash dishes or milk the cow. In the cafeteria, students ate whatever the farmers had dropped off from the surplus in their fields.
“To show how tough the times were, one of Johnson’s friend’s, Juanita, mother sent her two dimes a week. She bought a whole saltine cracker package and a carton of milk,” Pamela said. “She could only eat in the cafeteria once a day, so she had to live off of her groceries for the other meals.”
If the students did not obey the rules of the campus, they faced serious consequences.
“I was campused several times, for about two to three days. I took a ride with some Olivet students that I didn’t know, because I worked at Woolworth’s in Danville on the weekends, and I missed the train ride,” Johnson said.
Being campused was similar to being grounded. The first type was the preliminary warning where students could only go to the cafeteria and library. After a second warning, students had to stay in their room and they were fortunate if someone brought them food.
Students used to enjoy taking a walk around the “Three Mile Square” on campus. One afternoon, Johnson and about 10 other friends decided to go out for a walk. Later that day, each student was campused because they did not have a chaperone to accompany them.
“I tell her about pranks that I do with my friends now, which are way worse than what she did. People in her grade would just be a half hour late to class,” Dustin said.
According to The Daily Journal, Johnson’s family has been integrated into Olivet for over 75 years. Johnson’s father, Dr. W.S. Purinton, also graduated from the University.
Purinton built 15 churches in Danville and was on the Olivet board that decided to move the campus to Bourbonnais. Centennial Chapel was built over the home that he built to house Olivet professors, which was on Burke Street then.
“I am connected to Olivet through many ways,” Johnson said.
Along with Pamela, Johnson has four other daughters: Judy, Virginia, Jean and Sue. When she stays at the Vail’s house for Homecoming each year, she writes Romans 8:28 in her guestbook.
–Danielle Snuckel, Life & Culture Editor