Heart of Treasure Valley

He ‘hated Latinos’ like ‘Hitler hated Jews.’ Now, he pours his heart into helping them.

When he talks about his life and where he’s come from, Kent Johnson begins with a startling comparison to Adolf Hitler. And then the apostle Paul, who was legendary in his persecution of Christians, before his conversion. And then, he refers to himself.

“I was like both of those guys,” he says. “I hated Latinos as much as Paul hated Christians and Hitler hated Jews.”

The seeds of his racism and hatred were sown growing up in the 1960s during the Los Angeles Watts riots. When he moved to Caldwell at 18 years old, he was victim to thefts and burglaries.

“Those seeds got watered and fertilized even more,” he says. “I just assumed all Latinos were carjackers, thieves and bums. That’s the way racism is, and it’s not very selective.”

He had a lot of experiences with “them,” and he developed a sincere hatred for “that group of people.”

“I always thought Spanish was a language given to them as a system of sounds for people not capable of learning a real language. …That’s what I thought, but ignorance is that way.”

And then, he laughs. “It’s like the good Lord has a sense of humor.

“Just as Paul had a conversion experience, so did I. (The good book) says, ‘I will take that heart of stone out of you and I will replace it with one of flesh.’”

He pauses. “I had that transplant.”

Now, his best friends don’t even speak English; and he is, in fact, fluent in Spanish. Johnson spends half of his year living in the slums of Lima, Peru, mentoring young adults. The other half of the year, he runs a business in Garden City called Rarity Rugs — where all the proceeds fund scholarships for about 30 young Peruvians to learn a trade and get started in a career of their choice.

“I wouldn’t trade the last 10 years for the previous 60,” he says. “Because there’s an intensity and purpose now that I didn’t have before.”

Big ... and empty

For most of his life, Johnson was a workaholic. He started, built and sold a number of profitable businesses, from lumber to construction to granite. Success came with his work, and in the late 1980s, he built an enormous showcase home in Meridian and thought he had it made.

“Ten thousand feet of ‘it’s as good as it gets,’ ” he says. “And there I am, sitting in my rosewood paneled library thinking, wow. I have got everything.

“But I felt so empty.”

He was commissioned to build a bed and breakfast in New Zealand, where he struck up a friendship with a Maori couple. They lived, simply and humbly, in a one-room, dirt-floor house that was half the size of his dining room. At the time, New Zealand was thinking about beginning a national lottery, so Johnson asked them what they’d do if they won $100 million.

They weren’t sure. They listed their assets: They had each other, God, their health, family that loved them, an iron roof that didn’t leak, a refrigerator that always had enough in it.

“She said, ‘So if you can tell us what we are lacking, that’s what I’d buy with the lottery money, but I think we already have everything.’ And that was a defining moment for me.

“Because I realized: Here I am, living in one of the great houses on the planet and they’re living in one of the poorer houses on the planet – and they were richer than me.

“That never went away.”

That was a different kind of seed planted in Johnson’s life. He didn’t realize it at the time, because first, his life fell apart. He and his wife divorced; he had to sell his mansion because he couldn’t afford the taxes. There are other things he won’t speak of, but he calls them “the fuse on a big bomb that went off.”

“The American dream, which for me became the American nightmare. … I don’t want to dream that dream anymore.”

In the midst of that turmoil, he reluctantly went with a church group to build a medical clinic in Mexico. “I didn’t really want to – racism doesn’t go away overnight; hate doesn’t go away instantly,” he says. But in Mexico, he met a kindred spirit. A kindred spirit who was Mexican.

“I couldn’t speak a word to him, but he was a magician with his hands in terms of working concrete and construction, which was also my background,” says Johnson. “So we hit it off really well. … I had a real affinity for that guy and a few other people I met. …

“By the time I (left), a lot of that huge brick wall that I had spent my lifetime building was starting to come down.”

That was the first trip to Mexico. And then there was a second and a third – he’s lost count. Then he built an orphanage in Guatemala. Along the way, he started writing pen pals in Lima that he’d met online to practice his Spanish; back to Boise, he started an immersion Spanish school.

The diagnosis

And then there was the hospital he built in Cuenca, Ecuador. That’s where he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009.

He could tell by the look on the doctor’s face that the news wasn’t good: Late-stage colon cancer.

“All of a sudden everything that mattered to me didn’t matter, and all the stuff that did matter – now mattered,” Johnson says. “It caused me to start living life with an immense intensity, because it felt like I had spent a lot of my life chasing dollars, chasing work. And I realized, none of it mattered.

“Was I going to leave a pile of money? Was I going to leave properties?

“Or was I going to leave a legacy?”

Suddenly, everything fell into place. Looking for the best return on his investment took on a whole different meaning.

“To invest in a kid’s life and put him in school, and see him graduate and become a freshly minted architect, or a world-level chef …” says Johnson. “That far exceeds acquiring another house or another $100,000 in the 401(k).”

He started his scholarship fund by accident, when he was visiting a pastor in one of the “slumdog millionaire kind of neighborhoods of Lima.” A young man fell in love with the pastor’s daughter, but didn’t have the means to finish his education. There was another seed planted.

“He was studying architecture and now he is one,” says Johnson, not without pride. It’s a scholarship, not a loan, he reiterates. He chose to work in Lima, because there, poverty is life-threatening; and there, $1,500 will buy a full year of college education.

“Giving (money) away is a blast,” he says. “And when you see some kid throw his hat in the air because now he’s a medical doctor or he’s a new lawyer or an architect – that doesn’t have a price.

“That’s something that can’t be taken away, either from him or me. … That graduation ceremony is more than payment enough.”

Now he’s not only given scholarships to about 30 young adults, but he spends a couple of hours a day on Skype, mentoring them. “It’s cheaper to learn from somebody else’s mistakes,” he says, “than to repeat them yourself.” When he’s in Lima, he does that in person.

“I could tell you their life stories,” he says. “I watched them grow up. They’re family.”

Looking ahead

Johnson has always loved and sold Oriental rugs, and now they are a means to an end. The sign in his living room showroom says: “When you find a beautiful handmade treasure here to add to your home, you are also making it possible for someone across the world to achieve a dream.”

“I am full to overflowing,” says Johnson, who is 68 years old. “If the good Lord takes me tonight, I’ve had more life than the next 10 people ever had, because of the intensity. That can’t be taken away.”

There’s a question that he asks himself every day, and it drives him: Is the world a better place today because I walked on it?

“And not because you earned money or whatever. But did you generally make it a better place? By helping the old lady across the street? By dropping a couple of cans in the Rescue Mission barrel? … Some days it will be a big thing and some days, it will be a small thing. You have your balance. So how is your balance doing?”

Good works look different for each person.

“Mother Teresa was about orphan kids; some people are about single moms. What you do doesn’t really matter; it’s why you do it – and the fact that you do it. What gets you up every day?

“Is it chasing the money? Is it fulfilling job obligations? Or is it for filling something way bigger than you – and just being content to be part of something that’s bigger than you? …

“I can’t scholarship every kid; I mean, it’s impossible,” says Johnson. “So you get to a point where (you say), can I change your life? Is there something I can invest in your life to make yours better?

“One at a time. Change one life at a time. So that’s what I do. …

“I try to live every day that way.”

Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, @IDS_Photography

Want to buy a rug to support the scholarship program?

Call 208-631-9184 or email elbotino@yahoo.com to set up an appointment, or visit the website RarityRugs.com

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