HONORS GRADUATE — Johnny Dyer (right) poses for a photo with his wife, Tracy, after graduating with honors Saturday from the University of Tennessee at Martin. While this non-traditional veteran has racked up several accolades while in college, most of
By JOE LOFARO
Special to The Press
MARTIN — Johnny Dyer’s life goal was to be a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, so, school was never important to him. But things changed for the Obion County native, and he graduated with highest honors in secondary education-history Saturday from the University of Tennessee at Martin.
While this non-traditional veteran has racked up several accolades while in college, most of his life has been a fight.
“I joined the Army when I was 17, and that was not easily obtainable,” he said. “I was 15 pounds underweight.”
The 120-pounder made it through basic training, infantry school and jump school. At 18 years old he was part of the 82nd Airborne, which was deployed in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama.
Eight months later, Dyer was among the first 500 soldiers in Desert Shield. “We were on the Kuwait/Saudi Arabia boarder, and I was sitting on a sand dune when I said to myself, ‘If I get out of here, I am going to do something different.’”
From Desert Shield, Dyer went to Desert Storm in January of 1991. “It was 135 degrees when I stepped off the plane,” he said. “I was happy when the Marines showed up. They had tanks.”
Dyer and the 82nd Airborne were assigned to the French Armored Division of the French Foreign Legion. Dyer and the 82nd Airborne were responsible for providing security for the French tanks.
While the French had tanks, Dyer carried an M-203, basically an M-16 rifle with a 40 mm grenade launcher attached to it.
“I (saw) my share of rough times while I was in the Army,” Dyer said. “I think that’s why I didn’t make it a career.”
After three-and-a-half years, six medals, a resolution from the Tennessee Legislature, his parachute jump wings, one ribbon, a lapel button and his expert marksman’s badge, Dyer’s military service came to an end.
“The first thing I did when I came home was fill out two applications, one for a job at World Color Press in Dyersburg and one for admission to UT Martin,” Dyer said.
“I was offered the job at World Color Press, but I got out of the Army to go to school,” he said. “I had to fight to get into UT Martin.”
Dyer won this fight, and not only did Dyer go to school, but he also worked the second shift at Goodyear in Union City and raised two young children. With all but 52 hours finished, Dyer put school on hold. However, that did not mean he put work on hold.
He ran for state representative in 2002 and lost in a close race. In 2003, he was elected financial secretary of the United Steel Workers Local 878L. “I managed to cut $30,000 from our budget without cutting any of the services we offered,” Dyer said.
He also ran for Obion County mayor in 2006 and finished second in a field of five candidates.
In addition to serving as the financial secretary, Dyer was the chief fundraiser for the USW Local 878L. “One of the things that I am the (proudest) of is in 2006 we raised and distributed $10,000 to each member of the union affected by the tornadoes in Newbern.”
His responsibilities grew at the union hall in 2009. He became the third officer in charge, and he was responsible for all public relations. He also served as the workers’ compensation representative for injured Goodyear workers and the FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) representative for the USW Local 878L.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Dyer organized a letter-writing campaign to President Barrack Obama, which resulted in more than 15,000 letters being sent to the president.
“The end result was successful,” Dyer said. “We were able to get a tariff placed on all tires coming into the United States from China for three years.”
Less than a year later, Dyer lobbied the U.S. Senate for funding to create green jobs across the United States. In 2011, he served on a joint committee of the Local 878L and Goodyear. The committee had to help secure funds in Nashville to save the Union City Goodyear plant from closing.
Through the committee and Dyer’s hard work and dedication, the committee landed a $2 million grant from the state.
The pressure of the Local 878L caught up to Dyer in the summer of 2011. “I went back to school, and all I wanted to do was hide.”
Dyer gave up a seven-day paid trip to Las Vegas with his wife, Tracy, so he would not miss the first day of class in the fall semester of 2011.
But there was no hiding. One day, early in the semester, Dyer was called to the front of the class. Dr. Alice-Catherine Carls, who teaches history, handed him a Post-it note with two names on it.
“She told me the first name was that of someone whom I should contact to start a local veterans association on campus. She said I needed to help the other person out, because he was suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I just wanted to get through college,” Dyer said. “By the time class was over, I decided I had better do my part.”
Carls said during her career as a professor she has been moved by the efforts of veterans and their family members to integrate into collegiate life.
“In recent years, the number of student veterans and families of deployed military personnel in my classes has steadily increased. So I decided to do something about it,” Carls said.
“Because all of my students had to turn in a vitae, I knew Johnny had a military background and he could do what I wanted,” the professor said.
“If Johnny (Dyer) tells you he will do something, consider it done,” Carls said. “He will go above board to do it.”
The Skyhawk Veterans Association (SVA) was founded and on record as a recognized student organization within a year. “The association’s motto is to support veterans and promote the college,” Dyer said. It is the first UT Martin student veterans group since the early 1950s.
“You can tell he is a leader among the veterans,” said Dr. Bonnie Daniel, a senior research assistant at UT Martin.
Dyer served as president of the Skyhawk Veterans Association in 2011 and was the group’s treasurer in 2012.
Along the way, Dyer continued to serve, regardless of the situation. He thrived on helping young people, and he has always tried to teach along the way. While doing his student teaching at Lake Road Elementary School in Obion County, he successfully brought in Holocaust survivor Sonja Dubois.
During his second student-teaching assignment, Dyer’s passion for students was a constant. “I always went out of my way to help students,” he said. “The reason is simple; I was one those students that nobody cared about.”
This time, Dyer has won the battle by setting a great example. As his senior year came to a close he has piled up four impressive awards. He won the Charles “Butch” Newby Scholarship for excellence in history, the first education major to win the honor. He claimed the Gallien Award for leadership and academic excellence and then landed the Outstanding Secondary 7-12 Student Award presented by the UT Martin Department of Educational Studies.
Just this past month, Dyer capped off his collegiate career by winning the Harold Love Community Service Award presented by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). Dyer’s recognition brings the total to 28 students, faculty and staff members from UT Martin recognized by the THEC Love Community Service Awards programs.
“Who would have thought I could have won these awards with my high school background,” Dyer said. “I was almost a high school dropout. I wanted to be a paratrooper, and school was not important to me.”
Dyer was among the more than 600 students to participate in commencement and receive his degree Saturday. “This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said.
In the audience witnessing the commencement exercises were Dyer’s wife and his four children: Joshua (18), Whittney (16), Aaron (16) and Caroline (14). His dad, Jerry, was also there.
Missing the storied event, but watching via the Internet from her hospital bed in Memphis, was Johnny’s mother, Donna Dyer, who drove a school bus in Obion County for 28 years. Mrs. Dyer suffers from some kidney problems.
Johnny and his family and friends celebrated Saturday afternoon with a party at the “Dyer Compound,” the name given to Johnny’s home and his parents’ home located right next door.
Johnny Dyer’s next fight is not far. “I will be looking for a job Monday,” he said. “And in three weeks I start treatment for leukemia.”
Dyer has been diagnosed with leukemia, a type of cancer of the blood or bone marrow.
“I have known about the leukemia for awhile, but I told the doctor I wanted to finish school first.”
Published in The WCP 5.7.13