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Woman of Influence: Geneva Bolton Johnson '51

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Photo Courtesy of Geneva Bolton Johnson

Geneva Bolton Johnson '51 was ambivalent about coming to Albright. As one of only 20 African-American students in Reading High's senior class
of more than 800 students, Johnson's first college choice was the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. However, the pastor of her church suggested Johnson attend Albright as a day student so her family could save money to send her younger sister to school.

Johnson was heartbroken, but says, "I can't explain how it happened, but after a month, I fell in love with Albright." As a member of the Day Students Association, an organist in Memorial Chapel and a Pi Alpha Tau pledge, Johnson says, "I did not wear race on my sleeve. I saw myself as a human being and was accepted." She was the first African-American woman to graduate from Albright. Unfortunately, she was not prepared for the discrimination she would face as she entered the workforce.

From the age of 15 through her years at Albright, Johnson volunteered at
Reading's YWCA. "When I applied for an available position within the organization after graduation, they told me there were no vacancies," Johnson says. She was also turned down for a position with Reading's United Way.

Never losing her passion for nonprofit work or her entrepreneurial spirit, Johnson knew the only opportunities for African-American women at the time were in the segregated south.

As program director with the YWCA in Houston, Texas, Johnson became a successful business leader. She credits Annadora V. Shirk, Ph.D., emerita professor of English, for instilling self-confidence and poise in front of an audience. "After I spoke at a state conference, someone in the audience came up to me and offered me a job on the spot," Johnson says. That person was the chairman of the United Way in Reading, one of the organizations that turned her away years earlier. Eventually, Johnson held a series of senior executive positions with the United Way for 14 years.

Not one to be defined by race or gender, Johnson was named to the Top Five Best Managers in the Social Service Field in the U.S. in Business Week, March 1990. She became a consultant to Fortune 500 companies and to national organizations. Throughout her career, Johnson received numerous awards including the 2010 "Women of Influence Award" by the Milwaukee Business Journal.

Johnson received a master's degree from Case Western Reserve University and a certificate in executive management from Harvard Business School. She was awarded an honorary doctor of humanities from Albright and an honorary doctor of humane letters by Alvernia University.

Retiring in 1994 as president and chief executive officer of Family Service America, Inc., and Families International Inc., in Milwaukee, Wisc., Johnson's passion today is to mentor men and women senior business leaders throughout the country. "I moved from a successful career to a life of significance," she says proudly. Reflecting on her journey, Johnson says "More than any experience in the world I have had, more than any person I have met, Professor Shirk and Albright influenced my life the most."

–Linda L. Mecca '08

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