A year ago, Renee Gordon, a senior at Anacostia Senior High School, learned she was the beneficiary of an unusual gift. She was to receive $1,000 towards her college tuition from the Wallace Johnson Scholarship Awards, a family operated program that grants college money only to students with a C grade average.
Gordon was the 12th beneficiary of a program designed for teen-agers who are both motivated and economically needy but who are screened out of many scholarship programs designed exclusively for academic high achievers.
We feel that the average student often strives harder and achieves true excellence," said Velma Johnson, who with her husband, William, administers the scholarship program named in honor of a son who died three years ago. They give out three awards each year. Applicants for the $1,000, $600 and $400 awards must be in their senior year at a D.C. high school, demonstrate a need for financial assistance and have a C average.
"We believe that if you have a little, you give a little," William Johnson said, explaining why they started the awards program.
The couple say they often contribute food, clothing or book money to the neighborhood needy.
When they were thinking of ways to honor the memory of their son Wallace, whom they describe as a brilliant artist and an average high school student, the scholarship award program seemed the natural thing to do.
William Johnson, portly, friendly and bustling, is a successful businessman and former radio announcer who once ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the School Board. In conversation, he seems driven by a commitment to the less fortunate.
Born and raised in Alabama, Johnson said he sees himself as the inheritor of a deep-rooted Southern Baptist tradition of community help and support. "My grandmother, she was the greatest of them all. She cooked for people, for anybody that was hungrey," he said.
Johnson and his wife operate the program from their "3610" and "B'Neth It All," boutiques and the Brookland Book Bazaar, in the 3600 block of 12th Stret NE in Brookland.
He is well-know to teen-agers of the 1960s as a top deejay for WUST radio, a D.C. gospel music station that once played rock and rhythm and blues. He also is well-known in the neighborhood.
"He's a pretty good guy, a lot of people know him," said 5th District police Sgt. Denis Silbert, who used to patrol Johnson's street. "Any time there's some kind of District affair, I always see him. He participates, and he's not just a businessman."
This year, when it came time to review the hundred or so applications he received for the scholarship program, Johnson decided to look beyond his immediate community.
"I said to myself," Anacosta is the abandoned part of this area, nobody thinks about it.' And I looked at the applications from that area more carefully," Johnson said. "I have to admit I was biased (in favor of Anacostia)."
"Times are so hard," said a spokeswomen for the D.C. public schools system's Office of Student Affairs, which administers the Wallace Johnson Scholarship Awards program. "Students find getting funding more and more difficult."
The office screens and oversees about 60 private scholarship programs a year, reviewing them for financial soundness and making sure no strings are attached for the students. The spokeswoman said the Johnsons' program is one of the few that provides enough funds to make a significant dent in a student's need.
Last year, Isaac Bruce Massey, then a senior at Roosevelt High School, received $400 to study at the University of the District of Columbia. June Frith, a student at McKinley High School whose eight-member family has a total income of $4,680 a year, won $600 to study accounting at UDC.
The top prize went to Gordon, who has an older sister and brother who are college graduates. A second brother works with his father in the carpentry trade.
Gordon was determined to attend college even though her family's $18,500 yearly income and her grade average might make financing dificult. "My counseler told me about the Johnson program, and Mr. Johnson himself called me about two days after I applied and asked me to come in for an interview. I was expecting a man with a mean attitude . . . a businessman. Boy did I get it wrong."
As a first semester biology major at Virginia's Hampton Institute last fall, she was upset about her Cs. "The work was so much harder than I expected," she said.
Her second semester mid-term grades include an A and two Bs. But she does not evaluate the benefits of having won the scholarship simply in terms of her academic success.
"To me," she said, "getting it meant I'd accomplished something on my own, done something myself to relieve my parents' burden of educating me."