A Tribute to Johnnie Armstrong
Posted by Ashley Genoble
Once upon a time in a magnificent yet hidden corner of the world, scores of wide-eyed girls from across the South were taught in utmost serious and dramatic fashion by word and deed that the most lady-like action in a specific situation is to fire the .22 and blow the rattlesnake up at the head. I can’t imagine anyone who killed more venomous snakes with a gun than Miss Johnnie Armstrong. It seemed to be at least two per summer, possibly more if Western North Carolina was experiencing “drought conditions.” So many have a Johnnie snake story or at least we all well remember “Johnnie’s snake talk.” Thanks to her emphatic coaching, we knew like we knew our own names what to do if we had a run-in with this frightening predator. We were okay because all we had to do was stop or freeze- a deliberate action in complete contradiction to our natural tendency in that situation but necessary since snakes react to movement. Then, we were to yell our lungs out and somehow word always miraculously traveled to wherever she happened to be. In no time flat, no matter what she was doing, Johnnie would be there with her rifle and the copperhead or rattlesnake would inevitably suffer a terrible defeat. After this brief but impassioned interruption, we would resume our normal activities of singing, laughing, and playing in what to many of us was the closest place to paradise, Camp Crestridge for Girls. But more importantly, our leader and Director taught us with all the same intensity if we were to ever have a fighting chance in this world against the real snake, the accuser, deceiver, and enemy of our souls, the weapon we would need is God’s Word hidden in our hearts. While fearless in life, Johnnie taught us “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10) and “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” from Proverbs 31 which she encouraged us to read everyday no matter our age.
Johnnie challenged us to spend twenty minutes alone with God at the beginning of each day in silence: praying and reading His Word. It was called Quiet Time. It was revolutionary to our young minds then and it is even more revolutionary now. We had the rest of the day to talk to everyone else which as girls we most certainly did do this and like our first mother this was our usual means for getting ourselves into trouble. But in Johnnie we had a different example. She exhorted us to be proactive, to go ahead and set aside that time first thing for Him. Twenty minutes of quiet sure felt like an eternity but she wanted us to know that one day we would come to treasure this time and long for more. While we were laughing with our cabins during Cook-Out, she was alone fasting and praying for each of us. We were challenged to hear God’s Word, memorize and recite God’s Word, sing His praises, and remain silent in Chapel or Campfire and meditate on what had been said and what changes we needed to make to live in accordance with Scripture. Or we
simply learned to listen for the bullfrog in the lake, the crackling fire, the tall tulip poplars rustling in the wind, the soft melody of the creek making its way over rocks and under a cathedral of rhododendron, the symphony of katydids. It is an ache we haven’t ever gotten over. No one was more fun than Johnnie but no one could hush a group of giggling girls with simply a mere look quite like Johnnie either. “Will you make Jesus Christ the center of your life?” she would say as she lit the white candle during Council of Progress. With the same piercing eyes that could take aim for an elusive snake dead-on, she took aim at our squirming hearts. It’s a question to last a lifetime.
The world will have to forgive us if as girls during that time we could not comprehend the tragedy of mass shootings that would later dominate news cycles. We only knew the loud bang of a rifle echoing through the mountains and across the lake was a comforting noise. It was the sound of a beautiful, extraordinary, one-of-a-kind lady with a competitive spirit like no one else, a towering joyful presence, and an excellent shot protecting girls from a very real and ancient enemy. When we heard that sound, we never doubted: Johnnie won, somewhere a snake is dead. If a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised, then a woman who trains other women to fear the Lord and not the world is due double honor. Dear Johnnie, although we are scattered, your many children arise to call you blessed. Thank you for your remarkable faithfulness to Christ. You’ve spent your one shining season always running the race to win. You valued each of us enough to want us to win as well. We hope to empower those who follow behind us with the priceless, eternal weapon of God’s Word and God’s Love you have so magnificently shared with us. And when we hear a rifle, see a snake, or are somehow unpleasantly reminded that no matter how wonderful life is at times, we are still in the cross-fires of a fallen world, we can remember that because Jesus fixed His eyes to Jerusalem, shed His blood on the cross for our sins, and rose again our ultimate enemy has been conquered. When we, who were once little girls and who are now big girls, find ourselves hysterical and tangled up with this foe, we only need to stop or freeze, cry out to Jesus, and like Johnnie, He is right there to take care of us. Jesus has won: death, darkness, and evil are defeated.
Written by Parish Hardy