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Hawk's Eye View: Vernon Johnson '91

Vernon Johnson at Military Affairs Open House

April 18, 2024 | SaJorden Miller

Within UNCW's community, few stories better symbolize the transformative power of education and service than that of Vernon Johnson ’91 (above, left). His journey from uncertain applicant to dedicated alum is not just a testament to the university's nurturing environment but also his resilience and commitment to giving back. 

He reflects on his Seahawk experience in this latest Hawk's Eye View.

Johnson's initial steps toward UNCW were not marked by enthusiastic anticipation but rather by a twist of fate.

"Honestly, I had two really good friends in high school, Dena McLean and Amos Quick, who attended UNC Wilmington in 1986 and persuaded me to apply," Johnson recalled.

Vernon Johnson '91 with his wife Dr. Tina Ford-Johnson '91.

Vernon Johnson '91 with his wife, Dr. Tina Ford-Johnson '91, at UNCW.

Despite his friends’ encouragement, Johnson was still unsure. His father, however, insisted he apply. A full-tuition academic scholarship offer, plus a signature from his mother accepting it, sealed the UNCW deal.

Arriving for orientation without ever having stepped foot on campus, Johnson found himself surrounded by the community that shaped his future. In 1987, UNCW was quite different and smaller than today. With around 6,000 students, the Black student population was roughly 10 percent and a very close-knit group. It is also how he met his wife, Dr. Tina Ford-Johnson ’91.

"When I first saw her, I thought – she’s going to be the one," Johnson recalled. The two eventually met through mutual friends and their friendship blossomed. "One of the best things about UNCW was finding my wife."

Academic growth was also part of Johnson’s Seahawk journey. His original marine biology path switched to communication studies. Ultimately, his career landed him in teaching and coaching, thanks in part to his UNCW experience.

Johnson was also a charter member of UNCW’s Phi Beta Sigma fraternity in 1988. Through that fraternity family, he volunteered a lot in the Wilmington community. One such event kickstarted his coaching career – sponsoring a youth soccer team. He and his fraternity brothers would get up early every Saturday morning to coach their seven-to-nine-year-old soccer squad.

Vernon Johnson '91 holding a flag with his students

Vernon Johnson '91 with his students holding the USA flag.

"It was one thing I fell in love with. You see their bright faces, bring them snacks and try to build relationships through sports. They were just having a great time, and so were we. The children looked up to us as role models."

Johnson took a coaching basketball class at UNCW under one of the assistant basketball coaches, and from that class until his retirement from teaching in 2023, he was coaching in some capacity.

When he graduated in 1991, Johnson joined the teaching ranks but also found another way to serve. Johnson joined the Navy Reserve in 2001, right before the attacks on September 11, 2001. Johnson was influenced to enlist by his father, a former Captain in the Air Force, his father-in-law, a former Master Sergeant in the Marines, as well as a desire to serve the country. Already being a teacher, he was able to serve through the Accelerated Ascension Program, which allowed him to join as a petty officer due to his professional life experiences.

His naval career spanned eight years, taking him across Europe in support roles, including stints in Germany as well as Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States. "After September 11, I was assigned to PATCH, which is U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany,” Johnson said. “I served basically in support of SEAL Team 2, who were fighting in Afghanistan."

Reflecting on his military service, Johnson is quick to deflect notions of heroism, emphasizing instead the camaraderie and invaluable experiences he gained. “I met a lot of great guys and women who made great sacrifices for this nation," he states humbly.

Transitioning from military service back to civilian life, Johnson found himself still drawn to education and coaching, prompted partly by his wife's encouragement and his own experiences mentoring youth. 

Throughout his career, in the classroom or serving, UNCW has remained a guiding light. It is the place he credits with instilling the values of leadership and lifelong learning.

"UNCW overall prepared me to be an independent thinker," he said. "It gave me a solid educational foundation to prepare me for other things like graduate school and other professional pursuits."

Today, as a proud member of UNCW's alumni community, Johnson remains actively engaged, serving on the African American Graduate Association’s Steering Committee, giving back financially and advocating for the university's continued growth.

"I try to do whatever I can do to help the university because it has done so much for me and my wife," he said.

As he continues to pay it forward, his story serves as a testament to the enduring legacy of UNCW and its transformative power in shaping lives for the better.