FHSU gets history lesson in the flesh

Arris Johnson WWII

10/08/15
By Diane Gasper-O'Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- The speaker held the audience spellbound for more than 90 minutes, and he was 70 years their elder.

That's what happens when history jumps out of the book at you.

Arris Johnson from Hays, who will turn 94 next month, gave college students and a handful of adults attending a Thursday night presentation at Fort Hays State University a real-life glimpse of life as an American soldier serving in World War II.

Dr. Richard Lisichenko, associate professor of geosciences, and Dr. David Goodlett, associate professor of history, brought Johnson, a retired FHSU professor, back to campus for a talk titled "The Price of Freedom."

Goodlett told students in his history classes they could gain extra credit for attending. Others came simply because they were interested in seeing what one student called "history in the flesh."

Lisichenko knew Johnson from their affiliation in two different civic organizations in Hays. So he contacted Goodlett about joining forces in bringing Johnson to campus to speak.

"With the nature of the talk, we felt the historical as well as the geographical components went hand-in-hand," Lisichenko said. "We felt having the two departments come together on this one seemed like a logical thing to do."

Lisichenko admitted he was pleasantly surprised, both at the attendance -- several students sat on the floor at the back after all the chairs filled up quickly in Stouffer Lounge of the Memorial Union -- and at the presentation itself.

Johnson gave the audience a history lesson like no other.

He had them from "Hello" after the soft spoken gentleman asked the audience if it was OK if he used a chair.

"My balance isn't so good anymore," Johnson said as he made his way behind the chair. He stood throughout the entire presentation, using the chair only for balance.

"I had gotten the chair for him and expected him to sit down," Lisichenko said. "I couldn't believe he stood for 90 minutes."

It was even longer than that as students and adults alike stood in line afterward to thank Johnson for his service -- and for his presentation.

"I am so glad I was able to make it to this," Osborne junior Ashley Oliver said. "This was amazing."

One elderly man who arrived early sat near the front and nodded his head several times during Johnson's talk.

Eighty-nine-year Paul Hofstetter knew exactly what Johnson was talking about.

Hofstetter -- who served in WWII and earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees from FHSU on the GI bill -- is the father of Cheryl Duffy, FHSU professor of English.

Duffy told her dad about the upcoming event and he and his wife, Deloris, came from Hill City to hear Johnson's presentation.

"This was great," Deloris Hofstetter said, glancing at her husband as he nodded his head in agreement.

Johnson gave old photos to the geosciences department beforehand, and he narrated as the photos flashed up on a large screen.

He told how he entered the service his senior year at Fort Hays Kansas State College in 1942 along with a couple dozen other seniors and how he would return years later to earn his degree on the GI bill.

He said his assignment in the Army was to work as a clerk when officials learned how fast he could type. Johnson also became a bugler when it was revealed he could play several musical instruments.

He used phrases such as "colder than Blitzen" while describing the cold of winter and "hotter than all get out," when talking about the dog days of summer. He talked about riding on a 40-and-8 boxcar, which transported 40 men or eight horses and the enormous size of the "88" weapons -- 88 millimeter anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery guns.

He talked about suffering from chigger bites while sleeping on the ground and the constant lookout for poisonous snakes.

Johnson got choked up when he showed a photo of the "Battle of the Bulge," a surprise attack by German forces that resulted in the highest casualties for the United States in WWII

"You would walk by bodies and wonder if they were your friends," Johnson said. "You just have to accept it.

One memory led to another, and numerous times, Johnson said, "I've got one more story to tell you."

After more than an hour and a half of talking, Johnson fielded questions from the audience, which led to even more stories.

Someone asked Johnson what he looked forward to most while in the war.

"Getting home in one piece," he said, chuckling.

A collective "Wow" was heard when he mentioned that he still has letters he received from his parents from back home and again when he unfolded a large Nazi flag he brought home with him.

How did the war change you?, someone asked.

"How do you handle death?" he replied. "I think it boils down to that. This ol' world, we just have to take what we get and go on."

His answer to "What kept you going?" was swift.

"This went with me the whole way," Johnson said, holding up a small well-worn New Testament. "I think this book helped me to adjust to a lot of things."

FHSU President Mirta M. Martin held up her hand in the back of the crowd, telling Johnson she wanted to make a statement rather than ask a question.

"Thank you for serving, on behalf of those who have come after you," she said. "Thank you for giving us the blessings that come with liberty."

Asked again how the war affected him, Johnson replied, "People who work together and fight together, you learn very soon it's not just about 'me.' You look out for everybody."

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