Smiling her wide, mischievous grin and exuding a warm, open manner, Ophelia Evelyn Johnson Killens can cheer the sternest stranger and delight anyone with her stories of what Dorchester Academy was like for students in its heyday.
Dorchester Improvement Association board members and supporters honored Killens, a former Dorchester Academy Industrial High School graduate and valedictorian, on Thursday at a luncheon inside the Liberty County landmark.
Killens was born in 1919 to Horace and Florine Johnson of Brunswick. She attended ninth through 12th grades at the academy, graduating with honors in 1938.
“It was wonderful,” Killens said of her school days. She said her pastor, the Rev. E.R. Curry, and his wife, Rosalind Curry, were instrumental in helping her get into the academy.
“I was so happy. I didn’t think I would have made it (without them),” she said.
To help pay for her room and board at the school, Killens would rise each day at 6 a.m. to work in the laundry and then in the dining room before attending classes.
“I didn’t miss a class,” she said. “I was probably a little late getting to them, but I made it.”
After graduation, she attended Georgia Normal for a term until her funds ran out. Then, she moved to Jekyll Island and stayed with her father, so she could find work and earn money for college.
Killens said she rode her father’s old bicycle one day, “speeding down the road,” and was stopped by Michael Duzetter, of Manhattan, N.Y. Duzetter was a chef at the Jekyll Island Club, a private club where many wealthy Northerners vacationed during the summer months. Killens took care of Duzetter’s wife. The couple asked her to return to Manhattan with them, but she wanted to stay in Georgia at that time. Killens said she had planned to become a teacher, but that didn’t work out. So, she worked for the Duzetters for several years until she married her first husband, Charles Dolley. That marriage lasted about two years, Killens said. Later, she married her first love, James Killens. She also raised two nieces as her own daughters, Affie Holmes of McIntosh County and Mary Lou Tutt of Brunswick.
Killens moved to Norwalk, Conn., where she pursued a career in nursing. She was a nurse at Norwalk Hospital in Fairfield County, Conn., for about 40 years. Norwalk is the teaching hospital for the Yale School of Medicine.
Upon her first retirement, she moved back to Brunswick to be near her parents, her niece, Affie Holmes, explained. Killens came out of retirement to become an assistant manager at a nursing home when she was in her 70s, Holmes said.
At the age of 95, Killens still remembers all the lyrics to the Dorchester Academy school song, as well as the academy’s motto she learned as a student and lived by throughout her adult life: “We ask not for rest, but for the strength to labor on.”
Dorchester Academy museum facilitator Deborah Robinson said the association hosts luncheons for former Dorchester Academy students as a way to honor them and their role in the academy’s history.
The boys’ dormitory is the only major building still standing on the campus of Dorchester Academy, which was founded in 1868 by the American Missionary Association to educate freed slaves. The academy continued to provide schooling for African-American children in Liberty County for generations.
“It was the only school in Liberty County (at the time Killens attended) that went up to the 12th grade,” Robinson said.
Dorchester closed as a school in 1941, but continued operating as a community center. The academy hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. The civil rights leader met with other activists to plan the Freedom March to Birmingham, Ala. Eight years ago, Dorchester was designated as a national landmark.