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Johnson takes a chance at life in retirement

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Juno Ogle Photo Rhonda Johnson retired as regional director at WESST six months ago. She said while she has enjoyed the break, she is still keeping busy visiting family and enjoying life.

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It’s been almost six months since she retired, but Rhonda Johnson said while she’s enjoyed the time off, she still has plenty of “pep in her step.”

For seven years, Johnson was regional director at WESST, a nonprofit economic development organization that provides training and loans to primarily women and minority entrepreneurs.

She said one of the biggest accomplishments of WESST during her time there was the Go Latinas! conferences. She credits her then-assistant, Veronica Arias, with starting the conference in 2015. It brings speakers from the region’s business world to encourage Latina women with their own business goals.

“The last one we had in person had nearly 100 people. That room was full,” Johnson said. The 2020 conference was held virtually.

“Just seeing other people grow and be happy and fulfilled, that’s probably the biggest gift WESST gave me,” she said.

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The job also gave her the opportunity to become involved in the community. Prior to WESST, she had worked in sales for TriCore Reference Labs, traveling about 1,000 miles a month across the state. She and her husband, Steve, moved to Roswell in 1995 from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

They had one son together, Steele, who attended New Mexico Military Institute, and Steve had two older children that Johnson said she calls her own rather than stepchildren. She has eight grandchildren.

She said she retired from WESST when she did in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic taught me to put priorities in order. Family and friends,” she said.

Although she’s vaccinated against COVID-19 and takes other precautions, she didn’t want to take the risk of not being able to spend more time with her family.

“I don’t want to be dead while I’m still living,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be gone and not have done what I needed to do with my family.”

Johnson said she still loved helping people to achieve their dreams of owning their own businesses, but working from home during the pandemic led to her working more hours.

“I’d get up in my pajamas and start working. I’d work longer hours because I’d never leave. I was always tired,” she said.

Although she’s proud of being able to help several businesses obtain $5,000 grants to help keep them going during the pandemic, Johnson said it was hard to see what businesses were going through when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s health order forced them to close.

“I saw all these people who had been in business, sometimes 30-plus years, and couldn’t make a living. I took it personally. There was nothing I could do, and I’m not saying she did right or wrong, I don’t know. But I saw what I saw and it was painful,” Johnson said.

It caused her to evaluate her own life, and she decided to make a change.

“I thought, I’m 69, it’s time. Do what I want to do, not because it’s comfortable, if you will, not because it’s just what I’ve done. It’s like, take a chance,” she said.

A widow since 2014, she also took a chance on new love, and that also spurred her decision, she said.

“I never thought at this age you could find that kind of wonderful love,” she said.

She met retired rancher Jeff Jasper one night at The Liberty, she said. She went there to meet a friend for a drink, but it was crowded. Another friend was there with Jasper and they invited Johnson and her friend to sit with them.

“When he got up to go get us a drink, my friend Lydia said ‘You want me to give him your phone number?’ and I went ‘Yep!’” she said.

“There was just something about him that really tugged at me, and we can’t be any more perfect for each other,” she said.

“He walks too slowly. That’s the only thing he does wrong,” she said with a laugh.

He was also willing to take a month-long driving trip to see Johnson’s friends and family around the country.

They visited her son Steele in Michigan, where he was stationed in the Coast Guard as captain of an ice breaker. They attended his command change ceremony and helped his family prepare for a move to the Washington, D.C., area where he is now a congressional fellow in a U.S. senator’s office.

After that, Johnson and Jasper drove to Franklin, Tennessee, Huntsville, Alabama, Lafayette, Louisiana, and Houston and Fredericksburg, Texas, visiting family and friends.

“We just had fun and just didn’t have an agenda. After being cooped up with COVID for so long, we just drove. We were very careful and maintained our distance and wore masks and all that,” she said.

“I think it made it an easier decision since I met Jeff and he was retired and we could do this fun thing. It’s not something I would have done, I think, by myself,” she said.

Since returning from the trip, Johnson said she has kept busy, but in a different way.

“You can be busy and not spend a lot of money, just do fun things. I’ve probably read in the last six months about 50 books,” she said. “I’m a voracious reader and never had time before.”

But, she admits, she might be headed back to the Roswell workforce for a couple of years. She didn’t want to say where, but said she is in some discussions to do so sometime next year.

“It’s an opportunity that I’m excited about pursuing,” she said.

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