Thomas A. Johnson of Thomas A. Johnson Furniture Co.

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Many years ago, a small boy growing up in Ghana, West Africa, watched his village of twelve dine on the meat of one tiny chicken. Much disturbed by what he saw, he vowed to someday do something about it.

Thomas Johnson thinks of himself As the epitome of the proverbial American dream with a story he says could happen only in America. He left his native country of Ghana at 30, unhappy about the political situation. And by looking up a Peace Corp volunteer he had befriended there, he found his way to Lynchburg falling in love with the Virginia countryside. He had made a self-declaration of independence and has never looked back.

Twenty years later, and now a successful small businessman, Thomas's dream has grown even bigger. Having built a thriving furniture and cabinet manufacturing business in a sprawling, 100-year-old warehouse on the bank of the James, River, he and his skilled workers daily craft, out of the mountains of old, salvageable wood that came with the warehouse, pieces that are gracing homes and businesses throughout the US. Now he wants to establish a woodworking school. His reason is simple: The time-honored trade of American woodworking is dying and, he says, we cannot allow that to happen. Thomas worries that if we don't train our own to make quality products that we can export to the world market, we will become solely a nation of importers.

But the dream has a second part: Thomas has not forgotten his vow to give back to his native country. So, though he won't go back to raise chickens in his village, he does plan to build a companion woodworking school in Ghana. The poor there are still oppressed and exploited by the rich, he says, with little means of ever becoming economically independent. His two schools would have an exchange program, with a foundation to fund it.

In 2008 Thomas acquired a former lumber yard with 130,000 sq. ft of warehouse space and 35 acres of land located on Mayflower Dr. The site is gradually being transformed into Mayflower Landing, a wood products manufacturing village that will house the Thomas A. Johnson School of American Woodworking, a Woodworking Business Incubator, Woodworking Museum/ Welcome Center, a chapel, and the corporate headquarters of Thomas A. Johnson Furniture Co. The school will house workstations equipped with traditional and computer-aided design tools, classrooms with audio-visual equipment and an entrepreneurial training model to teach the basics of setting up small woodworking business enterprises. It's an ambitious dream, but Thomas is not daunted.

"In America you can do anything, so I am glad that I am in America; I love this country. You have to work hard…16 hours a day. And, so, you see the fruit of your sweat…in America is the only place that the drops of your sweat will never go unpaid; if you don't quit. So, I know that there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel." That savvy and can-do spirit garnered Thomas an invitation to the White House to discuss the needs of small business with the president.

-Adapted from an interview by Libby Fitzgerald, WVTF News

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