Joseph C. Johnston (BA ’75) didn’t know Mormons from moonshine. Still, the Methodist kid in rural Kissimmee, Florida, would tune his transistor radio to a local AM station with a strong signal while milking cows on Sunday evenings. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir would come on, and Richard L. Evans, the voice of the choir, would give a spiritual thought from the “Crossroads of the West.”
“The voice just kind of resonates to your core,” Johnston recalls, “and the milking was so much easier when I had the choir music going.”
Even so, Johnston didn’t know much about Mormons. “I’d heard Mormons had gone west, but I figured they’d mostly died out.” The closest he got, though he didn’t know it at the time, was seeing BYU show up in the scoreboard section while watching football on Saturdays. “I had no idea BYU had anything to do with Mormons,” he says.
As Johnston finished high school, he didn’t want to automatically follow the crowd going to the University of Florida or Florida State. “I was in a pickle about where to go and what to study,” he says. “So I prayed about it. “I asked God, ‘Where should I go?’” He went to the local library to look at college catalogs, closed his eyes, and pulled one out at random: it was for Brigham Young University. He saw images of snow and mountains and read about an honor code. “I was never one much for lots of wild stuff,” he says. “I thought, ‘Could there really be such a place? Could it really be that good?’” His friends laughed at the choice, says Johnston, “but that just made me dig in my heels.”
After two years of junior college, Johnston applied and was accepted to BYU. He lived at Deseret Towers, where he asked his roommate and everyone in his hall if they’d ever had coffee or tea or alcohol. Except for one—who had tried and didn’t like it—they all hadn’t. Johnston thought to himself, “Wow! They really follow this?”
As he picked up the LDS lingo and a few points of doctrine, Johnston found he could blend in with members—but he gave his roommate fits questioning everything. And yet, in spite of his doubts, he couldn’t get over how all these young people were really living their beliefs.
And then one day, while walking back to his dorm, it happened. “I still remember the spot. I remember looking up at Squaw Peak,” he says. “And it’s just like ‘God is right here.’ . . . At that moment I was just thunderstruck. And I knew that, hey, this is it.”
He called up the missionaries: “I’ve already picked out a date to be baptized. You can teach me the lessons if you want, but I’m getting baptized that day.” Following the lessons, Johnston’s roommate baptized him, and the roommate’s family took Johnston in.
Johnston graduated in international relations, and, later, his four children all studied at BYU. As he reflects, he says, “I had a kind of journal I’d kept when I was younger. And I’d written before I ever came out to BYU that I felt God was leading me out here. I . . . believed that wholeheartedly. BYU is just that kind of place.”