When E.F. Johnson and kin decided to spread their wealth back in 1960, they weren’t kidding around.
They were in it for the long haul, and 50 years and untold millions of dollars later, Waseca-area residents have benefited mightily from their largesse.
Again this year, Christmas came early for numerous entities that shared $122,000 for needs large ($20,000 to a flood-damaged nursing home) and small ($575 to students who make bandages for the war-torn Congo).
“They’ve been extremely generous, and during these economic times any additional funding we can receive is wonderful,” said Brian Dietz, superintendent of Waseca public schools, which has received $550,000 in grants since the Johnson foundation’s oversight organization, the Waseca Area Foundation, began 21 years ago.
Waseca Area Foundation Director Karen Buum said it’s unclear how much money the Johnson Foundation has bequeathed since 1960, but records show that since 1994, it has awarded nearly $2 million.
“I’m still in awe at their generosity,” Buum said.
Lois Johnson Chaffin, E.F.’s daughter and the sole family member still residing in Waseca, said there’s a simple reason behind her forebears’ philanthropy:
“They all loved Waseca.”
Edgar Johnson, an electrical engineer, started his radio communications company in 1923 and turned it into an industry giant.
Born in 1899, Johnson’s childhood coincided with the advent of electricity in American homes.
“They grew up when electricity first came to town,” Chaffin said. “The city would turn power off at dawn every day because it was only needed at night for lights.”
Even though the E.F. Johnson company was sold decades ago and, aside from a downtown museum, no longer has a presence in Waseca, its foundation continues to serve as a beacon for its local legacy.
Unlike most foundations that serve certain niches, the Johnson Foundation covers a wide swath.
This year’s grants are typically eclectic, with awards going to such entities as Waseca Arts Council, Farmamerica, the Waseca Chorale, Habitat for Humanity and the aforementioned school program that makes bandages for shipment to Africa.
The New Richland Care Center, severely damaged by flooding in September, received $20,000 from the E.F. Johnson Foundation as part of a $40,000 overall grant package.
Nursing home administrator Mikenzi Hebel said the money will go toward ongoing repairs at the facility, which is expected to reopen by late December.
Johnson foundation guidelines stipulate that 60 percent of its funding go to education each year, and schools and individuals throughout the county benefit.
“The foundation also funds a scholarship for nontraditional students that is just awesome,” Buum said. “It’s for people who go back to school to get degrees.”
The grants are awarded following an application process and board review. Buum said 21 applicants were considered this year by a Waseca Area Foundation panel that oversees more than 50 local funds.
The E.F. Johnson Foundation was created by Johnson family members Edgar and Ethel Johnson, Marvin and Mildred Johnson and Everett and Ruth Johnson.
In its mid-1970s heyday the E.F. Johnson company had more than 2,500 employees before a flood of cheap imports from Japan wiped out the company’s CB radio business.
The company retrenched and posted about $60 million in revenues in 1981. It was sold a year later to Western Union Corp. and subsequently spun off and sold a few more times.
The firm in its current incarnation is based in Irving, Texas.