Within a few weeks, Ginger Johnson's sister sustained major injuries after being in a car hit by a train, and her stepfather, whom she affectionately calls "Dad," was stricken with a life-threatening form of cancer.
Both relatives were hospitalized for extended periods at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
"My mother and I literally slept on the floor at UAMS for six weeks," Johnson recalls. "We ate out of vending machines. We drug pads off whatever gurneys we could find to sleep on at night."
The year 1996 was a horrible time in Johnson's life. But out of tragedy, something positive emerged. Johnson gained an intimate understanding of what family members go through to care for loved ones in hospitals for extended periods of time. When given the opportunity, she wants to help make overnight hospital visits more bearable for other patients' family members.
Seven years later, Ginger and her husband, Ray Johnson, invested in McDonald's restaurants, and are now owner/operators of four McDonald's restaurants in Conway.
An organizer of the Ronald McDonald House in Little Rock, which provides temporary living quarters for people with relatives in hospitals, asked McDonald's owners if they could help fund a black-tie event to benefit the house. Johnson jumped at the idea, helping create and sustain the Chocolate Fantasy Ball.
This year, Johnson will be honored for her long-standing support of the ball and the house. The ball is Feb. 10 at the Statehouse Convention Center. About 700 attendees are expected.
For the past 15 years, Johnson has helped organize the ball and also served from 2004-2012 as a Ronald McDonald House board member. She helped raise money to build a new 32-room house on Martin Luther King Boulevard, a block from Arkansas Children's Hospital.
The $10 million house opened in 2016, tripling its space to 32,000 square feet. It has two kitchens, an 80-seat dining room, lounge areas, indoor and outdoor play spaces, basketball half-court, laundry facilities, and a library.
Donations completely funded its construction. The ball is expected to raise about $450,000, providing one-third of the annual operating funds for the house, says Emily Piechocki, the organization's development director.
Sitting in the house's fifth-floor conference center with an all-glass corner view of the state Capitol and downtown Little Rock, Johnson laughs while recalling how far the ball has come since the first one in 2003 at the Arkansas Arts Center.
"It snowed 7 inches that night," she says. "We sold 180 tickets, about 160 still showed up. The emcee didn't make it. Limos canceled. The next year we had it at the Clinton Library. I gave [the speaker] six minutes, and 52 minutes later, all the lights went off and the escalators stopped working. They were on timers."
But things weren't too bad for those in attendance, despite those obstacles. "We had chocolate martinis, so it was good," she chuckles.
SHE NEVER QUITS
The manner in which she handled that evening is emblematic of her approach to life's challenges. Her friends say she never quits regardless of what's standing in her way.
"She is probably one of the most dynamic women I know," says Nadine Morris, an advertising specialist who worked with Johnson for many years through a marketing firm affiliated with McDonald's. "She is a go-getter, an action-oriented person. You give her a challenge and she accepts it and excels in completing whatever task she's given. She's had multiple career changes in life and excels in each one. She is very positive person, very uplifting spiritual person who doesn't take no for an answer."
Johnson was born July 19, 1965, in Cape Girardeau, Mo., to Alvin Hull and Jerene Kinslow. When Ginger was 2 years old, the family moved to Arkansas so her father could manage a store in Russellville.
Her parents divorced when she was in fifth grade. She lived with her mother, who worked in a grocery store wrapping meat to support her two daughters. Her mother would give her one dollar a day to pay for lunch. She hated watching her mother struggle with bills. She recalls at one point sitting in a car and declaring to herself, "I'm never going to be poor."
The family moved to Conway when Johnson was in ninth grade after her mother married Ron Marable, an entrepreneur who owned multiple nursing homes, coin-operated laundries, and convenience stores.
"I used to roll coins, set up fireworks stands at the convenience stores, get the checks in line for reconciliation for bank statements, mow lawns at the nursing homes," Johnson says.
A CHANGE OF HEART
She graduated from Conway High School in 1983, and enrolled at the University of Central Arkansas. But an accident at Lake Ouachita led to a change of heart and set her on her path toward her first career.
"I dove off a cliff and wound up with a terrible whiplash in my lower neck and back," Johnson recalled. "I went to a payphone at the UCA student center. I didn't know anyone who was a chiropractor. I don't know why I decided to go to a chiropractor but I had like three adjustments and I was completely better. I thought this is what I want to do -- drug-free pain relief. I just thought it was the greatest thing. I was only 18 at the time. It was like a miracle. Unbeknownst to me, I didn't realize the stigma of being a chiropractor back in 1984."
Her mother questioned her decision to leave UCA for Northwest Chiropractic College in Bloomington Minn., now Northwestern Health Sciences University. Others wondered why she didn't want to be a "real doctor." But her stepfather encouraged her and gave her strength to continue.
"When I was 18 -- I'll never forget my first semester -- I called home crying and my [step]Dad said, 'Well, you can come home and change the bedpans at the nursing homes.' I didn't want to change bedpans or roast chickens in the convenience stores. So I stayed. I just learned to persevere. 'I can't' has never been a part of my vocabulary. Either you are going to learn from adversity or another door will open and you'll be better for it."
Johnson was one of 18 women in her class of 80 to graduate in 1989. She set up shop in Perryville which quickly became a busy practice, seeing about 150 patients a week.
"Oh, goodness, I've been called a witch doctor, a back popper and a quack," Johnson says. "But, hey, my first year in practice I made $150,000."
FIRST CHIROPRACTIC NEUROLOGIST
In 1997, after intense study, she said she became the first chiropractic neurologist in Arkansas, focusing on the brain, ears and eyes to help diagnose the proper treatment. She also ran a health supplement store and day care (with her first husband, Shawn McGehee) in Conway. She later invested in rental properties.
When her stepfather, who contracted multiple myeloma, died in 1998 following a fall after a round of chemotherapy, her world would change again. Not only did she lose the man who had become a business mentor and a father figure, she found out he owed quite a bit of back taxes. Johnson had to help her mother, who still lives in Conway, sell the nursing homes to pay off the tax bill.
"It was horrible. It just made me sick. I just try to remember the good times. I was single at the time with two little girls at home. My sister was still in a coma. She was my only sibling. It was a mess."
A year later, her sister, Leanne Hull, died.
How did she handle everything?
"The Lord," she says. "I don't drink or smoke. If I was going to write a book it would be Depression Is a Choice. You just do. My motto is 'The faster you hit a speed bump, the less you feel it.' You just keep on going."
Soon thereafter, another career presented itself, this one from the Golden Arches.
MET ON A BLIND DATE
She got into the McDonald's business with her husband, Ray Johnson, whom she met on a blind date at Pinnacle Mountain and married in 2001
Becoming a McDonald's franchisee isn't quick. She and her husband completed the two-to-three year "Hamburger University," where they learned everything about grilling burgers, cooking fries and following McDonald's standards.
McDonald's is a family affair for the Johnsons, with their older daughters doing their part. Johnson has two daughters from her previous marriage (Mindy, 27, and Sydney, 25) and two daughters with Ray (Alexandra, 15, and Chandler Grace, 13).
The family stays physically fit and active. Chandler Grace is involved in youth rodeo and recently won an award in a top competition. The family also snow skis, sky dives and scuba dives. In 2012, Johnson ran the Chicago Marathon to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House.
How does McDonald's food contribute toward such a lifestyle?
"Food is just the choices you make," Johnson says. "We have Fresh Express salads and Quaker oatmeal. Apple pie is my favorite. It's fine if you go run and just kind of work it off. What comes in must go out. Fast doesn't make something bad just because it's fast food. Beef is beef."
Ronald McDonald House administrators are quick to praise Johnson and her candor.
"She is not afraid to tell you what she thinks," says Brian Gilmartin. He and his wife, Lisa, became friends with Ginger and Ray in 2002. "People misunderstand her and she gets excluded from some things. She was in tears once and said, 'Maybe I shouldn't be so honest.' I told her she should stay just the way she is because 'that's how God made you.' She has a very strong moral compass. What's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. It doesn't matter who you are. She doesn't judge. We need more people like Ginger who will stand on the truth."
More than that, Gilmartin says, Johnson puts her belief system into action.
"She is a very strong woman who has bucked some barriers and if you ever need someone in a pinch, she's who you want on your team," Gilmartin says.
DOWN ON THEIR LUCK
Johnson says she'll help people down on their luck from time to time, such as a McDonald's employee whose son drowned. She paid for the funeral and helped produce a memory slide show. She says she's believer that if you give to others, God will repay you and then some. She recalls a time someone needed help financially and she lent a hand. She learned the next day that her business gained revenue she didn't expect, a bounty she attributes to God's grace.
Over the years, she has become involved in a mission group out of Kentucky that makes regular trips to Kenya to provide various medical services. She has gone four or five times offering her chiropractic skills.
Doug Smith of Ward knows of Johnson's generosity firsthand. An inspector for an insurance company, he also coaches rodeo and knows Johnson through her daughter's rodeo activities. In 2015, a bale of hay rolled on top of him, paralyzing him from the waist down. He says he went to physical therapy, but the staff soon gave up on the possibility of his walking again. He says Johnson heard about his accident and came to visit one Sunday after church.
"She told me about her sister getting hit by a train and she said, 'If you want to walk, we'll get to work,'" Smith recalls. "She worked my tail off for a year, lifting all kinds of weights. Two or three times a week for a couple of hours at a time. She has never charged me a dime."
Smith says he recently walked for 34 feet without the aid of braces.
"She doesn't take no for an answer, especially when she knows she's right, which is most of the time," Smith says. "I hate to think where I would be now if it wasn't for her."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: July 19, 1965, Cape Girardeau, Mo.
• FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Sandra Bullock. People tell me I look like her. Donald Trump. I love Donald Trump! He is a can-do person and I am a can-do person. And my dad, Ron.
• MY FIRST PET WAS: A German shepherd named Queenie.
• IN MY REFRIGERATOR YOU WILL USUALLY FIND: A Coke.
• MY FAVORITE PLACE IN ARKANSAS IS: At home.
• I ABSOLUTELY WON'T EAT: Potato salad.
• MY LAST MEAL WOULD INCLUDE: Chicken and dumplings and fried okra.
• IN MY CAR, YOU WILL USUALLY FIND ME LISTENING TO: K-Love or Fox News.
• MY FAVORITE TV SHOW IS: Hunted.
• I CAN'T LEAVE MY HOUSE WITHOUT MY: Phone.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Determined
“She doesn’t take no for an answer, especially when she knows she’s right, which is most of the time,” says Doug Smith. “I hate to think where I would be now if it wasn’t for her.”
High Profile on 01/28/2018
Print Headline: Ginger Rae Johnson: Friends describe her as dynamic, candid and generous, a woman who has faced poverty and tragedy head on only to emerge stronger. She’s a