‘He Was Like My First Father Figure’: A Retired Marine Finds His Calling Teaching NJROTC

November 15, 2022Jenna Biter
NJROTC Geoffrey Johnson Western Heights

Retired 1st Sgt. Geoffrey Johnson and cadets at Western Heights High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Steve Ruh. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Geoffrey Johnson wakes up every morning before 4 a.m. and drives 30 miles in the dark from his house in Norman, Oklahoma, to Western Heights High School, just outside downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

He briefly stops in his office to prepare the coming day’s quizzes and homework assignments before heading out to a school bus at 5:45 a.m. to start a 35-mile route. Over the next hour, long before the school’s regular buses are on the road, the retired Marine picks up roughly 40 students, all members of the school’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Johnson has been the face of the NJROTC program at Western Heights for over two decades. He has sent former students into military service, some for long careers, and many more into college and successful careers built on lessons he starts teaching before the sun comes up.

“He was like my first father figure,” said Sgt. Camien Jones, a current Marine stationed in Okinawa. “Seeing his work ethic, like showing up early, staying there late, having integrity, being dependable.”

NJROTC Western Heights High School

Retired 1st Sgt. Geoffrey Johnson, far left in the first row, and retired Lt. Cmdr. Steve Ruh, far right in the first row, with NJROTC cadets at Western Heights High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Steve Ruh.

As a student at Western Heights, Jones caught Johnson’s early morning bus for four years.

“I used to be late,” Jones, an inventory management specialist, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I used to miss the bus all the time.”

But Johnson put an end to that. Before starting one school year, Jones looked at his school schedule. The NJROTC course was missing. That meant he was off the drill team.

“He kicked me out of everything,” Jones said. “I saw that and was like, ‘What is he doing? Why’d he kick me out?’”

Johnson told Jones that he removed him from the program because he was often late for the bus.

“He was stern but fair,” Jones said. “Once I figured out, ‘Oh, he has to go get the bus to pick us up. Oh, this old man is still working, even though he’s retired and getting his pension and getting disability.”

Jones stopped being late and soon began to see Johnson as a role model.

“He designed his own house,” Jones said. “You know, he has a beautiful family. It’s just like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ I don’t have to choose the path that the people in my family showed me. He pushed me to just become great.

“Look at me now,” Jones said. “I’m a sergeant in the Marines.”

NJROTC Western Heights cadet promotion

Retired 1st. Sgt. Geoffrey Johnson promoting a cadet at Western Heights High School, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Steve Ruh.

From Drill Instructor to NJROTC

Western Heights was not Johnson’s first home as an instructor. An infantry Marine, Johnson served as a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego for two years in the 1980s and another stint at the University of Oklahoma ROTC program. After retiring as a first sergeant, Johnson thought he’d transition into consulting.

When a colleague from the ROTC program suggested he apply for an open instructor position at a Missouri JROTC program, he was skeptical.

“Hey, man, that’s for losers,” Johnson said. “You know, when I get out of the Marine Corps, I want to make sure that I’m out, and I want to have a life.”

The friend, though, challenged him.

“Geoffrey, I want you to think about the best time you had when you were in the Marine Corps and give me a call back,” the friend said.

“I thought about it, and about 10 minutes later, I called him back,” Johnson said, to ask: When do we start?

NJROTC Western Heights tour

Western Heights NJROTC cadets in front of a Navy E-6B Mercury jet at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Steve Ruh.

The Defense Department supports NJROTC and similar programs associated with other services, but students have no obligation to join the military after high school. Launched in 1916 by the Army, JROTC expanded to other services in the 1960s. The programs focus on leadership, citizenship, and teamwork in order to familiarize students with basic military skills and history.

JROTC detachments — which are referred to using their service's naming conventions, like "company" or "squadron" — include student leaders under the guidance of experienced military members like Johnson.

Though the Missouri position did not work out, Johnson applied for an opening at Western Heights in 2001 and has been there since.

Western Heights is a Title I school, the federal designation for schools with high concentrations of poverty. Roughly 80% of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.

More than 700 students attend Western Heights High School. Johnson has 121 of them enrolled as cadets in the NJROTC program.

“When you see some of these kids, where they come from, that's the whole beauty about driving the district every single morning,” Johnson said. “It just gives me that reminder to see where my kids are coming from. Because, in some of the areas that they live, they have the highest crime rate in Oklahoma City.”

Steve Ruh, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, worked with Johnson at Western Heights for two years.

“The Marine Corps, when he retired, they lost an awesome Marine,” Ruh said. “The JROTC program, when he retired from the Marine Corps, gained an awesome Marine.”

NJROTC Steve Ruh and Geoffrey Johnson

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Steve Ruh, left, and retired 1st Sgt. Geoffrey Johnson. Photo courtesy of Steve Ruh.

Drill Team and a Whole Lot More

Under Johnson’s coaching, the drill team practices formations, marches, and commands each morning and competes on Saturdays.

Twice a week, after drill practice ends, Johnson has “duty,” which means he mans the metal detector at the school’s entrance or helps in the cafeteria. Then he counsels cadets during first period or helps the principal with problem students.

Tuesday through Thursday, Johnson’s cadets practice in color guard, drill team, marksmanship practice, physical fitness, and academics, depending on what activities they’re involved in.

Johnson said the Western Heights JROTC program even started a drone team this year. “They practice flying through different obstacle courses, and then we compete.” Johnson sticks around until the cadets catch the activity bus at 6 p.m.

“Fridays, if we have a home football game, our kids, they work the concessions, and they do the color guard presentation, and they raise the flag,” Johnson said. On those nights, the instructors and cadets don’t leave Western Heights until 9:30 p.m.

Retired 1st Sgt. Geoffrey Johnson

Geoffrey Johnson with his best friend, Akai, during planning period at Western Heights High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Steve Ruh.

“Saturdays are mostly our drill competition days. So, if we do have a drill competition that we go to — that’s about an eight- to 10-hour day right there,” Johnson said. The cadets also volunteer as ushers at the University of Oklahoma football games. They work with the Navy ROTC program on campus.

“Pretty much, that’s my week right there.” Johnson estimated that he works roughly 50 to 70 hours during the week. If he includes the weekend, he works roughly 80 hours a week.

Western Heights graduate Craig Steadman told Coffee or Die that he joined the Marine Corps because of Johnson.

“He, as well as my grandfather, were the reason I joined the Marine Corps,” Steadman said. “One day a week, we’d be wearing our uniforms for JROTC and just walking down the hall and seeing that Marine uniform — yeah, that’s what I want to do.”

Steadman said that the JROTC program prepared him for the military.

“It was funny, when I got into boot camp, I was on fire watch one night, and my senior drill instructor asked me, ‘Steadman, were you in ROTC?’” he said. “Because he handed me a rifle and was making me do drill, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve done this for the last four years. This is all, you know, secondhand to me now.’”

NJROTC Western Heights drill team

Western Heights High School cadets led by Makayla Lowell at a drill meet. Lowell now teaches ninth-grade English at the high school. Photo courtesy of Steve Ruh.

Steadman got out of the Marine Corps in 2021 and now lives back in Oklahoma with his wife, Domonique, who was also a cadet at Western Heights. When Steadman moved back to Oklahoma, he paid Johnson a visit at the high school.

“I know he had been talking about retiring the ROTC while I was still in high school” — Steadman graduated in 2016 — “and I was surprised to see he was still there,” he said. “Like, man, I never met someone so dedicated as him to have the patience with all these kids in high school.”

A Life of Service and Caring

Johnson grew up in Mandeville, Jamaica, but moved to New York City when he was in high school.

“As a kid growing up, I kind of got into some trouble here and there, just doing stupid things,” Johnson said. “In Jamaica where we come from, if you backtalk anyone or anything like that, or if you step out of line, everybody labels you a bad kid,” he said.

Johnson moved to the US and turned his life around.

“When I came to the United States,” Johnson said, “I ended up doing very well, graduated with a pretty good GPA.”

NJROTC Geoffrey Johnson and Steve Ruh

Retired 1st Sgt. Geoffrey Johnson, left, and retired Lt. Cmdr. Steve Ruh at the NJROTC Military Ball. Photo courtesy of Steve Ruh.

Johnson then enlisted in the Marines in 1981 at 20 years old. His wife, Ali, was a Marine Corps cook when they met. “You know, the Marine Corps will tell you, if they want you to have a wife, they’ll issue you one,” Johnson said. They’ve been married for more than 36 years and have three grown children.

After Johnson’s 21 years in the Marines, this school year marks 21 years for him at Western Heights.

“I can’t see myself retiring soon,” Johnson, who’s 62 years old, said. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I retired.”

“This will be my last job, here at Western Heights,” he added. “Because, like I said, this is my family here.”

Many former cadets might say the same about Johnson, including Makayla Lowell.

“My freshman year, I feel like he really saw something in me that I didn’t see before,” Lowell said. “He just really took the time to talk to me and, you know, figure out what my goals were and help me evolve those goals.”

By the end of high school, Lowell knew she wanted to become a teacher. Now, she teaches English to ninth graders at Western Heights and encourages students to join Johnson’s program like she did.

Geoffrey Johnson and Makayla Lowell

Geoffrey Johnson and his former cadet Makayla Lowell on her wedding day in May 2022. Photo courtesy of Makayla Lowell.

“They like me to help them with their uniforms,” Lowell said. “I’ve shown them how to shine their shoes, quiz them on their general orders — and kind of one-up them because I know them all,” she said, laughing.

She also encourages the cadets to rib Johnson. “I’ll mess with him to the kids,” Lowell said. “I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that old man,’ or whatever. They go and tell him, ‘She called you old!’”

Teasing aside, Lowell asked Johnson to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day last May.

“My dad is not like really in my life, and I felt like first sergeant was the closest father figure I had,” she said.

“I’m a tough Marine, but I had tears, man,” Johnson said.

“I’ll tell you like I tell everybody else, you know, these kids have made me a better person, a better human being, a better husband, a better father — and you can’t put a price on that,” Johnson said.

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Jenna Biter
Jenna Biter

Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.

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