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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Howard “Scrappy” Johnson knows how to take charge — and when to simply follow orders.
During a military career in which he was highly decorated, Johnson rose to the rank of colonel in the Air Force and flew scores of bombing runs during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Johnson also trained pilots in World War II and set a world altitude record in 1958 by soaring 91,249 feet in an F-104A Starfighter.
But when it comes to Joint Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides home furnishings for veterans and their families, it’s Johnson’s wife of 28 years, Elena, who is running the show.
“I’m just the secretary,” cracks the 95-year-old Johnson, who joined his wife for the kickoff of the organization Sunday during the annual Veterans Day Parade down Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. To promote the project, Elena and Scrappy rode on a 75-foot float flanked by veterans.
Scrappy may be the war veteran, but the vision for Joint Mission came from Elena, 85, a charming, energetic Italian-born mother of five who ran consignment shops in Royal Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens with her husband for decades before selling the businesses last year.
“My dream was to dedicate the rest of my life to veterans,” Elena Johnson said.
Johnson was looking for a philanthropic venture a few years ago when she and Scrappy gifted $1,700 to a local homeless veteran and his family, who were living under a bridge. The Johnsons’ generosity got the veteran and his family into a home and allowed them a new beginning. They’ve been thriving ever since, the Johnsons said.
“It made so much difference for that one family,” Elena Johnson said. “It was overwhelming. We had to get more involved.”
Enter Joint Mission.
Working with the local branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the organization is already making a difference. The group recently outfitted the homes of three veterans, including one belonging to Bruce Rynearson, of West Palm Beach.
After serving more than four years in the Air Force and seven years in the active reserves, Rynearson earned a degree in management informational systems and enjoyed a successful professional career until he “fell on some bad times.” Rynearson, 53, said his problems revolved around “personal stuff” but admits they led to him becoming homeless before he was able to “dig myself out of a hole.”
Rynearson’s plight was brought to the attention of the Johnsons, who provided his unfurnished home with bar stools, lamps, a couch, wicker chairs and other necessities.
“They’re amazing people,” Rynearson said. “To be that age and to be that sharp and strong mentally and to want to give back to veterans, it’s a very godly thing.”
Even though she was born in Italy, Elena Johnson has been connected to the U.S. military much of her life. Her first husband, Walter O’Brien, was an Army sargeant major who died at age 37 of lung cancer. Four of their five children served in the military.
Elena, an interior designer, and Scrappy, then a cattle rancher who was also widowed, met in Texas and married in 1990.
After running their consignment shops — True Treasures — for most of their married life, the Johnsons have taken up a new project to keep them busy.
“We want to dream big,” Elena Johnson said. “But because of our age, time is against us. We have to work right now. Fast.”
Since selling their businesses, the Johnsons have invested more than $60,000, time and effort into Joint Mission. Elena said they hope to open a warehouse to store donated furniture. For now, the Johnsons are using their Palm Beach Gardens home as a base of operations.
Rynearson said he’s grateful for the Johnsons and their help.
“It’s been a godsend,” Rynearson said. ” Now I can have my mother over. She’s 93 and now I have a nice place for her to sit.”