I do enjoy a good “rags-to-riches” story, and I like it even more when it is about a local lad or lass who, in the vernacular, “made good.”
I’ve found one to share with you about a young man from Osawatomie whose achievements caught the attention of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. Alger, as you may know, was the author of fictional novels about young people succeeding despite obstacles in their lives. Each year, 10-12 persons considered to be dedicated civic, corporate and cultural leaders are honored with the Horatio Alger award.
Richard Ellis Johnson won that award back in 1964. Johnson signed his name “R. Ellis Johnson” but went by his middle name, Ellis. His story is inspiring.
Born in Osawatomie in 1910, Ellis was one of 11 children. He started grade school in a little one-room country school, and his diligent effort enabled him twice to combine two years of school work into one so that he was able to start high school in town at the Beeson School when only age 11. When not attending school or doing homework, he helped his mother, six brothers and four sisters run the family farm while their father, L. M. Johnson, worked in the Missouri Pacific Railroad yards.
Ellis graduated from Osawatomie High School at age 15, a member of the class of 1925. He began looking for work in order to contribute to his family’s welfare. His first job was as an office boy for Mo-Pac in Osawatomie, the beginning of an illustrious railroad career.
After 11 years with Missouri Pacific, he became secretary to the general manager of the Rock Island Lines in Kansas City. He rejected his old boss’s offer to make him an assistant trainmaster for Mo-Pac, believing he had more chance of advancement with the Rock Island.
In 1936, he began his career climb, holding nearly every supervisory position in the operating department. Starting as assistant trainmaster, he was promoted to trainmaster, assistant superintendent, superintendent, assistant general manager, general manager, assistant vice president and then was elected vice president of operations in 1954.
He graduated from Northwestern University’s Institute for Management in 1955. In 1961, only 51 years old, he was elected president of the then-78,000-mile, 15,000 employee, half-billion-dollar Rock Island Railroad. He considered himself to be his railroad’s No. 1 salesman, insuring the Rock Island’s slogan — “The railroad of planned progress...geared to the nation’s future” to be fact.
Johnson epitomized the Alger ideals of perseverance, integrity, commitment to higher education. leadership and community service. Because of his vision and determination, he was one of 10 winners of the Alger Award three years after election to the railroad presidency.
Others selected that year included Gene Autry, movie star and business mogul, Pearl S. Buck, award-winning novelist, and Charles B. Thornton, chairman of the board of Litton Industries.
Ellis never forgot his roots in Osawatomie though his jobs and positions required several moves before his retirement in 1965. His wife and two daughters returned his body here when he died in 1974.
Five of his brothers and three of his sisters had survived and attended the funeral services. Pallbearers were old friends, still remembered by many in this area — Raymond Laird, Douglas Hagadorn, Bethel Perry, Joseph Whiteford, James Powell and Harry Stoner. He was buried in Osawa- tomie Cemetery with Masonic services at graveside.
He remains an example of a life well lived.