When Claudia Johnson was growing up, she watched her grandmother, Susie Mae Towry, make hundreds of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls.
“She would hand stitch one for every single child in her classroom, each with a heart on the front that said, ‘I love you,’” Johnson said.
It was a “sweet legacy” for the longtime schoolteacher to leave behind, she said. Towry liked to send the students off each year with a reminder that they were loved. She liked to finish well.
But part of finishing well also meant leaving some things undone — she left a few things behind for her granddaughter to finish too—things that would come full circle in ways Johnson could’ve never anticipated.
“She was a preacher’s wife and prayed daily for missionaries,” Johnson said, noting that her grandmother kept her Bible open in the bathroom with a prayer list of missionary names marking her place. “She loved the work of WMU and loved God’s Word. I know that it was her prayers that really got me through all my high school years. She was just a real woman of God.”
And because of Towry’s active influence on her granddaughter — and her inherent influence through the way she raised Johnson’s mother, Nancy Towry Wall — Johnson eventually became one of those missionaries on that prayer list.
After Johnson finished school, she went first to Africa as a journeyman, then to Thailand with her husband, serving a total of 28 years with the International Mission Board.
“My grandmother and my mom were very inspirational in my life,” she said. “They were both very strong Christian leaders, and I am confident that it made a difference in my life. It made me want to serve the Lord in whatever capacity I could.”
One of those capacities was that, while serving in Thailand, she burned the midnight oil for a year to get her master’s degree so that she could teach at the international school.
“It was a very hard year, but when you have a clear word from God that you’re supposed to do something, it is really comforting,” Johnson said.
It was a sacrifice that paved the way for innumerable ministry opportunities for both herself and others. Because international school had become so expensive in Thailand, missionaries had been told recently that they had to homeschool their children from then on.
Johnson’s decision to lead at the school not only provided the means for her own children to go to school for free, her whole salary also went to fund other missionaries’ children’s tuition. That freed other mothers up to do more ministry, too.
And over time, God led Johnson into even deeper waters — she started a school for Urdu-speaking refugees in Thailand.
“The plight of refugees is tough, as we know, and those children gripped my heart,” Johnson said.
It was clear teaching ran in the family, as did a burden for the children who sat in the desks. Towry may have passed away before she got to see Johnson become a missionary and a teacher, but her legacy had lived on.
And recently, after Johnson returned to the U.S. and took the role of leadership consultant for WMU’s Christian Women’s Leadership Center (CWLC), her mom found something special when she was going through Towry’s things.
“It was a leadership card that said my grandmother had completed the WM Society’s leadership course,” Johnson said. “I thought that was so interesting. It was dated Nov. 12, 1963, and was signed by Alma Hunt.”
That struck a chord with Johnson, because these days her desk sits in the middle of the Alma Hunt Museum, named after the missions hero who led National WMU from 1948 to 1974. Every day as Johnson sits at that desk, she works to run the same leadership development courses for women that her grandmother completed back then — only now they are online.
And Johnson still has one of Towry’s unfinished Raggedy Ann dolls — a reminder that not only is she loved, there are still things left to do.
“I know my grandmother’s prayers and influence made a difference in my life,” she said. “She left a legacy of love behind. You couldn’t find a sweeter person, and the gift of having a family legacy of being in church and being in the Word — I recognize what a gift that is.”
Claudia Johnson recently decided to place a brick in Towry’s memory in WMU’s new Walk of Faith brick garden. For more information about the Walk of Faith or to purchase a brick in someone’s memory or honor, visit wmufoundation.com/walkoffaith.