A Legacy Past, Present, and Future

Doris (Swanson) Johnson ’66 has family connections extending all the way back to Bethel’s founder. Over a lifetime of giving, she and her husband Dennis ’63, who passed away in 2019, have made their own connections with generations of students, who will continue to be impacted by the Johnsons’ legacy far into the future.

By Michelle Westlund '83, S'21, senior content specialist

February 22, 2022 | 3 p.m.

Doris Johnson

Doris (Swanson) Johnson ’66 has surprising connections to Bethel’s history, and is also committed to investing in Bethel’s future.

To Doris (Swanson) Johnson ’66, “legacy” is not just a noun—it’s a lifestyle. She explains that she and her husband Dennis ’63, who passed away in 2019, desire their legacy to be “an ongoing lifestyle that involves active investment in others—an investment that grows as others give forward.”

The couple met while both were active in the Bethel College Choir. They came from humble backgrounds, says Doris, and while their families valued college education, they had little money to pay for it. “Our parents sacrificed greatly to send us to Bethel,” Doris explains. “I also received a $100 scholarship sponsored by our church youth group leaders, part of their legacy to me, for which I’m eternally grateful.” That meaningful scholarship was the final motivation for Doris to attend Bethel, which she’d heard mentioned frequently in her church as she grew up. But she had no idea then just how far back her own heritage connected to Bethel. 

“After extensive research into my family history,” says Doris, “I learned that my paternal grandmother, Emma Johnson Swanson, periodically sent money to Bethel, even though she had very little. It turns out that her father was one of the first Baptists in Shona, Sweden, and he and my great-grandmother became lasara, or readers, who participated in devotional groups without the parish priest, reading the Bible and reformers’ sermons. They were often harassed by members of the state church, so against the advice of their friends and family, my great-grandparents came to America, where freedom of religion prevailed.”

The connection to Bethel was through Emma’s marriage to Frank Swanson, whose mother Lovisa Anderson immigrated to Chicago in 1869 and began attending the First Swedish Baptist Church. On February 4, 1870, Lovisa was baptized by the church’s pastor—John Alexis Edgren, who went on to found Swedish Baptist Theological Seminary in 1871. After numerous moves and name changes, the seminary became what we know as Bethel University today. One of those moves was to Stromsburg, Nebraska, in 1886—Doris’ hometown—before a return to Morgan Park, Illinois, and a later move to St. Paul, where Doris says Edgren had wanted to move all along.

The Johnsons married in 1964, and after further schooling, pursued fulfilling careers—Doris in domestic and international human resources and Dennis teaching chemistry and directing scientific research. But Doris says their careers don’t define their legacy. “Although Dennis and I had rewarding professional lives, it isn’t our personal achievements that are our legacy,” she emphasizes. “We’ve never felt that one’s legacy is just a financial balance to be left as an inheritance. That’s part of it, but we wanted our loving partnership to make a difference in the lives of others. Since we were unable to have biological children, we became significant others for many young people, and there is an unwritten legacy we’ve left in the lives of those we’ve touched—whether financially, emotionally, or spiritually.”

That investment impacted countless lives, including Dennis’ chemistry students. “Dennis lives on through us,” says one. And that’s true of Bethel students as well. “We’ve donated money to projects and programs at Bethel over the years, but our primary financial contribution has come through the charitable gift annuity program,” says Doris. “We established three avenues for that money to be utilized: scholarships for chemistry, music, and individuals who would otherwise be unable to financially attend Bethel. The charitable gift annuity program is one of the best win-win options available. Everyone benefits—the investors, the students, and Bethel.”

For the Johnsons, giving has been an act of faith looking forward, not just “giving back” to God from what’s left over. “We never considered ourselves monetarily wealthy,” says Doris, “but we learned early on to give to Bethel with a faith that we would be okay the next year. Our mission has been to leave a servant-based legacy. It’s not about being personally remembered—it’s about impacting the lives of others, who will in turn pass on their own spiritual genetics.”

Leave a legacy.

There are so many ways you can leave a servant-based legacy and impact a Bethel student. If you’re interested in learning more about charitable gift annuities or other creative giving options, contact Bethel University’s advancement team at 651.635.8053 or visit bethel.edu/planned-giving.

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