Graham Johnson was a popular 15-year-old at Franklin Academy. He played the trumpet and tuba in the school’s band and dabbled in poetry, cooking and gardening.
The teen liked to drive around his family’s farm in Wake Forest. On Jan. 17, 2006, Graham crashed his father’s red Mercedes convertible into a tree.
That night, he fatally shot himself.
“It was a shock to us and the entire community,” said Liz Johnson, Graham’s older sister. “There were no outward signs it was going to happen.”
The family doesn’t know why Graham committed suicide, and they don’t spend much time trying to figure it out. Instead, they have turned their focus to helping others.
The Graham Johnson Cultural Arts Endowment aims to instill self-esteem and confidence in children through the arts. The family connects with art groups to visit local schools and Boys & Girls Clubs.
Now, the family-run organization will regularly host bingo games in downtown Wake Forest to help fund its initiatives.
N.C. Beach Bingo will open in 5,000 square feet of space on the second floor of The Cotton Company on Friday.
Liz Johnson and Bob Johnson, Graham’s father, said they hope the game hall will be successful enough to become one of the main financial supports for the endowment.
The Johnsons say the effort is not about suicide prevention – at least not directly. The idea is to build self-esteem and give people something they want to live for.
“Don’t focus on not trying to kill yourself,” Bob Johnson said. “Focus on finding something you really, truly love and you won’t want to kill yourself.”
Before the bingo idea came up, the endowment relied on Herbfest, an annual spring festival in Wake Forest, to raise most of its money.
Graham used to participate in Herbfest by growing his own herbs and giving them away during the festival.
Liz Johnson will manage the bingo hall, which will offer a variety of games and schedules in an effort to encourage people to visit downtown shops. The Johnson family has taken an interest in helping to revive downtown Wake Forest.
Eventually, the family hopes the game will go mobile. Historically, beach Bingo was offered along boardwalks and people could come and play as they pleased, Bob Johnson said.
The family has no special tie to the game. But Bob Johnson said it could become a powerful tool to foster family connections.
“One of the ways you prevent suicide is ... if you have a good family that shares,” Bob Johnson said. “We’re creating a family-friendly environment.”