Johnny & Stacey Donaldson

From the farm to the board room

There’s a painting at the Jackson headquarters of BankPlus that might take a trip down the hall by the time you read this.

     If you visit Johnny Donaldson, the Jackson president at BankPlus, he’ll probably show you the painting, a landscape by Charlie Buckley that hangs in the “Lexington” conference room — or in Johnny’s office, if he heeds his instinct to move it there. He says the crop rows on the canvas capture his childhood in south Mississippi.

     “I would look at this view (growing up) and think, ‘Is this it?’” he recalls. Was farm life his only future?

     Apparently not. Now Johnny’s family watches as he’s photographed standing next to the painting, and he reminds his daughters: God is the one who brought him from the crop rows to the board room.

Altar calls and toy trailers

     Dr. Stacey Donaldson, director of Instructional Design at Belhaven University, grew up on another farm in the same county as Johnny, but she lived in Bassville and he lived in Prentiss. They wouldn’t meet until college.

     While Johnny and his family raised cattle and grew soybeans, watermelons and wheat, Stacey’s father was a lab analyst at Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper company. He raised pigs on the side.

     Stacey spent lots of time outdoors with her brothers, and on Sundays she could be found at church, where her father was a deacon.

     “Every Sunday, in the Missionary Baptist church, you go up to the altar at altar call. The pastor makes this plea to those who want to be saved,” she says.

     “One Sunday, I thought, ‘Yes, I do (want to be saved).’ But there was this disconnect. I kept doing it over and over. Eventually, I realized, once you’re saved, you don’t have to keep going (down front).”

     Similarly, Johnny didn’t have “this earthshattering thing” happen in one specific moment, he says. He just knows he has trusted in Jesus for a long time. He recounts an early memory:

     “As a little kid, when I wasn’t old enough to work on the farm yet, I had a toy tractor,” he says. “Going to church, I heard them saying you could ask God for something and He’ll hear you. So I said, ‘God, can You give me a trailer to go on the back of this tractor?’”

     God graciously met Johnny where he was at. He got that trailer.

This painting that hangs at BankPlus’ Jackson headquarters reminds Johnny of his farming roots in Prentiss, Mississippi.

Pageants and pocket money

     When Stacey was in junior high, “a teacher saw something in me,” she recalls. “There was this silent part of me that wanted someone to see me.”

     Thanks to a certain Ms. Griffith, Stacey entered her first talent show, and later participated in pageants. “I hate the stage, but I hate the fear of the stage more,” she says.

     Meanwhile, by 14 years old, Johnny was supervising men who were decades older than him. “I was the tattletale,” he says. “My uncle would say, ‘If they don’t do (their job), come back and tell me.’”

     Johnny spent his summers “dusty from head to toe” while his friends were riding bikes or swimming. “I can’t tell you how many days I drove a tractor from sunup to sundown.”

     The plus side? He always had a little pocket money. And God was giving him the discipline he’d need when he finally left the farm.

‘Lord, am I making the right decision?’

     After high school, Johnny joined the U.S. Army.

     “I remember praying, ‘Lord, am I making the right decision?’ There were academic scholarships I turned down,” he says, though  the Army would pay for his degree.

     Good thing he asked God, and not his drill sergeant, for assurance. At basic training, the sergeant wrote in Johnny’s book, “This one’s not going to make it.”

     The sergeant shared that prediction with Johnny later, and added, “You proved me wrong.”

     At Johnny’s permanent duty station at Ft. Hood, Texas, another sergeant urged the men to go to church on Sunday mornings.

     “Uh, we’re off duty,” they’d say. “We don’t have to go with you.”

     “Oh, you’re going. And we’re going tonight. Bring your girlfriend with you.”

Johnny and Stacey during their college dating years.

     Johnny and two of his friends attended church with the sergeant, and the trio are “still like brothers today,” Johnny says.

     One of those friends, Brockston White, or Brock, was also a believer. “He would be reading his Bible as we’d be getting ready to go to the party,” Johnny says. “(He’d say) ‘Y’all both come in here.’ We’d have to read that chapter and talk about it before we left.”

     Even later, when Johnny was deployed during Desert Storm, “my tent-mate was a minister.” Johnny couldn’t get away from God.“Donaldson, we’re going to have devotion,” the tent-mate would say.

     “We’re in war!”

     “No, you and I are getting ready to pray.”

     Johnny’s feelings about the Army changed over time. While enduring a surprise training exercise in a cold, muddy foxhole at 2 a.m., he and Brock made a pact to “do something (else) with our lives,” he recalls. “It was storming, freezing … We almost had frostbite.”

     But after two years of active duty, Johnny cried as he drove from Texas back to Mississippi to attend college. Again, he asked God if he was making the right decision.

     “This was a career that I’d been in for two years, where I was thriving.”

     Again, God gave him assurance. He also gave him a wife.

Johnny with Stacey, front, and two cousins before deploying to Desert Storm with the Army National Guard.

‘Ninja Turtles,’ tithing, and toilet-seat notes

     Johnny and Stacey both enrolled at The University of Southern Mississippi. She was a couple years younger and had just finished high school.

     “I knew we were from the same county,” Stacey says. “I was appalled because the first few times we’d pass on the sidewalk, he wouldn’t speak.”

     Finally, Johnny’s best friend introduced them at breakfast in the cafeteria. “Johnny looked at me like he’d never seen me before,” Stacey says.

     He couldn’t believe she was from Bassville. He thought he knew the girls from Bassville.

     The two were just friends at first. They were both gun-shy due to recent relationships.

     “Our first date was (to see the movie) ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,’” Johnny says. “I asked where she wanted to eat…”

     “I said, ‘McDonald’s is fine with me,’” Stacey says.

     Later, Johnny heard a (false) rumor that another male student was trying to rub Stacey’s feet in class. He charged into the cafeteria to find the alleged culprit.

      “Then I realized, ‘Whoa, what is this? You’ve never been ready to fight over a girl before.’”

Johnny and Camaryn.

     After college, Stacey moved to Tupelo to continue a career in broadcast journalism. Johnny moved to Birmingham, and later Tampa, to start his banking career. They dated long-distance before eventually marrying and settling in Tampa.

     Like other newlyweds, the Donaldsons had to learn effective communication.

     “Early in our marriage, I had a hard time expressing myself verbally, so I had to write it out,” Stacey says.

     “Oh, yeah!” Johnny says, laughing as he remembers: “I’d wake up and there’d be a note on the toilet seat.”

     He’d take the letter to Stacey and ask, “What is this?

     “Did you read it?”

     The inevitable “no” made her even angrier. But Johnny would say, “Just tell me what you want me to know.”

     Eventually, she learned to talk through conflicts, and he learned that if she’d written him a note, he’d better read it.

     Also, Stacey got her husband, the banker, to tithe on their earnings.

     “Our first dining room set was plastic outdoor (furniture),” Johnny remembers. “We were sitting at that plastic table, and she said, ‘We’re going to pay our tithes.’”

     He was taken aback and tried to argue. “You don’t understand. (The money’s) not there.” He was paying bills at the time. Finally, he decided to trust his wife.

     As soon as Johnny wrote the tithe check, Stacey noticed the due date on one of the bills. Johnny thought it was due in a few days, but the date was still a couple weeks off.

     Since then, tithing hasn’t been a question.

Stacey and Cailyn, the Donaldsons’ miracle baby.

‘You could abort if you like’

     While pregnant with she and Johnny’s eldest daughter, Camaryn, Stacey started pondering the future.

     “I prayed, ‘I want (my career) to be what You have for me,’” she says.

     It turns out that meant teaching, which she started when Camaryn was 10 weeks old.

     As a rookie teacher, “it took me a good two weeks to understand why I need Jesus,” Stacey says with a laugh. “You really have to love God and love children to teach. I really learned what love was.”

     Stacey taught English, but her only experience was as a journalist.

     “The kids didn’t like English, but they loved real-world language arts. That’s what I called it,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was doing, except to use what professionals do … and give kids real-world experiences.”

     Meanwhile, the family had moved to Prentiss. Stacey taught in nearby Bassville, and Johnny commuted to Deposit Guaranty in Jackson.

     A few years later, while expecting their second daughter, the Donaldsons heard a horrifying statement: “You could abort if you like.”

     During a routine ultrasound, a technician noticed what turned out to be a tumor resting on baby Cailyn’s windpipe.

     The doctor explained that if the child was born, she might have Down’s syndrome and “no quality of life.” Then he left the room.

     The Donaldsons decided to move forward with the pregnancy and trust God.

Camaryn, who turns 23 this month, attended The University of Mississippi and Tougaloo College.

At Cailyn’s birth at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, doctors had to first establish an airway, since the tumor was blocking her windpipe.

     “She was attached to the umbilical cord for 30 minutes (after birth),” Stacey says. “She was breathing on me while they tried to find an airway.”

     Then Cailyn was taken to another room for the tumor removal.

     “It took less than an hour (and the tumor) wasn’t attached to anything,” Johnny says. “(The doctor said) ‘I’ve been doing this 30-something years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. This is a miracle.’”

     Another miracle soon followed :

     The Donaldsons received a hospital bill so huge, “I wasn’t even going to try to budget it,” Johnny says — and then they received another bill.

     The total at the bottom of the second bill was $0.

     Johnny and Stacey have never figured out what happened. “I never looked into it,” he says. “I don’t want to know who paid it,” whether the hospital gave them a break, or some rich, anonymous benefactor donated.

     Instead, they rest in God’s provision. “He showed Himself to be that ever-present help,” Stacey says.

Cailyn, a graduate of Clinton High School, plans to attend The University of Southern Mississippi in the fall.

‘Stacey’s husband’ and ‘Johnny’s wife’

     About a year after Cailyn was born, the family moved to Clinton. Ten years after that, in 2014, when Johnny was asked to be president of BankPlus Jackson — with all the Jackson branches reporting to him — he didn’t understand what was happening.

     The CEO called him in, and Johnny started ranting about why the bank needed a Jackson president. (He was vice president at the time.)

     “Yes, you’re right,” the CEO said. “That’s why you’re here.”

     Even as vice president, Johnny didn’t get the drift, he recalls.

     “In my mind, I’m still that farm kid from Jeff Davis County. I said, ‘You didn’t hear me. We need a president.’”

     His boss finally got the point across: The job was Johnny’s if he wanted it.

     He prayed about it and talked with Stacey, close friends and loved ones. He recounts what happened to seal the deal:

     “I got a text the next morning from somebody who said — ”

     He pauses to collect himself.

     “He said, ‘God is lifting you up so that others would see Him in you.’”

     After reading that, Johnny said, “I think I’ve got my answer.”

     Johnny became the first-ever African-American president at BankPlus, though he’s quick to say his boss didn’t just want to “check a box.” The CEO told Johnny it was how he came up in the banking world — from a drive-thru teller to a branch manager and beyond — that made him “creditable in the board room and the community center.”

Camaryn, Stacey, Johnny and Cailyn Donaldson

     In his new role, Johnny felt the Holy Spirit reminding him to point others to God and not himself. At his first meeting as president, he opened with a prayer. And his leadership philosophy is about teamwork, not titles.

     “Yes, I’m the president, OK, but let’s move past that. Let’s roll up our sleeves together,” he says.

     Similarly, as Stacey has exceled in her career, earning National Board teaching certification and master’s and doctoral degrees, she is reaching back to help others excel too. In addition to her day job designing courses to improve the student learning experience at Belhaven, she serves as candidate support for teachers who are going through the National Board process.

     “National Board certification is voluntary, not required, but it should be (required),” she says. “Students deserve the best teachers, and teachers deserve professional training to help them be their best.”

     Believe it or not, “Mississippi is seventh in the nation as far as (percentage of) board-certified teachers,” Stacey says, and the state Legislature supports the effort financially.

     The more Stacey talks about improving education for teachers and students, the more excited she gets. “I love it. I love it!” she says.

     Johnny brags on Stacey being named Mississippi Teacher of the Year, traveling all over the country as a representative of Mississippi, and even getting to visit the White House. “I went to the Rose Garden because of her,” he says.

     In college, Johnny was known as “Stacey’s boyfriend” due to her budding TV journalism career. Today, in her teaching context, he’s known as “Stacey’s husband.” And at BankPlus functions, Stacey is “Johnny’s wife.” Each is willing to step back and support the other.

     “He wants what’s best for me; I want what’s best for him,” Stacey says.

     Whether God’s best includes farm work, news reporting, soldiering, banking or teaching, “I couldn’t have written the story the way God has,” Stacey says.

     And in the end, the Author of that story is much more important than the Donaldsons, Johnny says. “We truly want Him to get the glory.”

‘He That Is Within Me’
by Johnny Donaldson

As you read these words, my earnest prayer
is that you will NOT see me, BUT, HE that is Within Me.
For you see, HE that is Within Me, is Far Greater, than he that you see.
Some people say the things we possess make the manner of a man.
I beg the difference! For you see, I am convinced that he that you see
can NEVER be Greater than HE that is Within Me.
For you see, HE is my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.