By RENEE FITE
Volunteers can provide the icing on the cake of a community, if not the whole cake, according to Mary Lou Johnson.
She’s the founder of the Save-A-Senior all-night graduation party, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this school year.
“The successful festivals we are having require so much volunteer dedication. It is so rewarding to see the town full of visitors and community members enjoying themselves,” Johnson said.
Her inspiration to volunteer came during a trip to Washington, D.C., in summer 1960.
“[It was] a different time when not many women worked, one of the speakers was a Quaker who talked about the importance of volunteering on the part of women. That moment really impacted me,” Johnson said.
She and her husband, Elton, moved to Tahlequah in July 1966 from Norman. The couple thought it would be a great place to raise a family. They grew up in Norman, when it was much smaller.
“We love college towns for the enrichment they offer,” she said. “I love the scenery of Tahlequah. The Illinois River, Barren Fork and the lake were just amazing to me. I love the history and the rich culture of the Cherokee.”
Her friend Jack Durrett and his wife had already moved to Tahlequah to open a law practice, and Elton joined that practice.
“My husband and I moved here before he’d even gotten his bar results,” she said. “I remember well the night we stayed up to go get a Sunday Tulsa World to be sure he passed.”
He practiced law in Tahlequah for 40 years.
“When our children were in school, I was a stay-at-home mom; when they started college, I became more involved in the management of his office,” she said. “I loved volunteering for anything that involved my children. I have volunteered in several capacities in the past at my church, First United Methodist.”
One event she first organized 30 years ago still provides graduating seniors with a fun, safe night.
“Norman High School had a similar event when our nephew graduated,” Johnson said.
In January that year, she met with Tahlequah school administrators Joe Duncan and Gary Gore about the possibility and received their approval.
“We had wonderful parent involvement from that moment on,” Johnson said.
She likes to emphasize the fun of the event.
“Of course, keeping them safe is important, but at age 17 or 18, you feel invulnerable. The safety issue plays with the parents more than the seniors,” she said. “And it makes memories. For some, it is the last time they are together with classmates.”
Because it was the first time and they didn’t know what kind of response they’d get, especially from the seniors, a questionnaire was prepared for the seniors to fill out.
“I think the guidelines we set up are still the same: Students are not allowed to leave and return, and door prizes are increasing in value over the evening as an added incentive to remain,” she said.
The committee also felt it was important to charge the seniors something so they would have a vested interest. Tickets were $6.
That first year, 200 seniors, their guests and 30 parents attended. They raised $4,677 and spent $4,123, leaving the balance for the Class of 1985. The first night, $1,200 was given away in door prizes.
“It’s hard to believe our son graduated 30 years ago in May,” Johnson said. “And it’s quite a tribute to our community that the tradition carries on.”
Three years after the first Senior Night Party, she was chairwoman for her daughter’s senior class in 1987.
“It was a little easier, since we were not breaking new ground,” she said.
Another volunteer area for Johnson is Friends of the Library. Ruth Gionta, Mary Elizabeth Box and Johnson organized the first group in the early ‘70s.
“I am delighted it is still an active organization,” she said. “One of our major events was hosting Wilson Rawls for a book-signing during the filming of ‘Where the Red Fern Grows.’”
As a volunteer, Johnson also served in several capacities with the Tahlequah Arts and Humanities Council. But her favorite projects always revolved around her children: PTA, homeroom mother, Blue Birds, Cub Scouts, booster clubs for sports.
“In fact, a major motivation for all volunteering was to make our community a better place for all our children to grow,” Johnson said.
Organizations she appreciates for the value they bring to the community also relate to helping children.
“I greatly admire those volunteers involved with Habitat for Humanity, Help-In-Crisis and Court Appointed Special Advocates,” she said. “It’s a dedicated commitment.”