John Johnson, 1970 Black Hills State University graduate, was honored by the Starkey Hearing Foundation at its annual “So the World May Hear” gala. The event is attended by dozens of celebrities and VIP supporters including Robin Williams and Billy Crystal pictured here with John Johnson.

When Black Hills State University alumnus John Johnson received the call that he would be one of the 2012 honorees for the Starkey Hearing Foundation,he wondered how a small town boy from South Dakota could receive a honor shared by former President Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Sir Elton John, Willie Mays and Billie Jean King.

But Johnson soon realized that while he joined a long listof high profile celebrities they all had the same goal: making the world abetter place.  

“It felt a bit unusual for a country kid from the Midwest,” Johnson said of being among so many well-known names. “But at the end of the day these are all people that have a cause in mind and have focused attention on this hearing issue around the world.”

Founded in 1984 by Bill Austin, the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s mission is to bring understanding among people through hearing care. The foundation fits and gives more than 100,000 hearing aids annually to underprivileged people throughout the world.

Johnson, a 1970 graduate, was honored for his work as president and chief executive officer of CHS Inc., one of the nation’s leading energy, grains and foods companies. Johnson has been retired from Minnesota-basedCHS from two years now; however, he left the Fortune 100 company and the countries in which it does business with the infrastructure in place to better distribute food around the globe.

“For me, it was quite an honor,” Johnson said during a phone interview from his Arizona home. “Every year they try to find a business person they think exemplified the art of giving and reaching out to communities.”

Johnson and his wife have been supporters of the Starkey Hearing Foundation, also based in Minnesota, for several years.

Johnson was honored at the” So the World May Hear” awards gala last year. The foundation also recognized Maria Bello, actress and co-founder of We Advance, an organization that helps to empower women in Haiti to improve their health, well being and safety; Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe of St. Monica’s School in Uganda; and philanthropists Glenn and Mindy Stearns.

“We believe service is the noblest work one can do, and we are excited to honor these fine men and women from around the globe and across various disciplines who positively impact the world with their own talents and abilities,” Austin said at the gala. 

“It is amazing the number of celebrities that come to this, and they all come on their own because they have such a passion for the cause,” Johnson said.

Nearly 1,500 people attended the gala which raised about $8 million, Johnson said.

“The foundation takes all the money raised each year and does outreach programs throughout the world where they fit underprivileged children with hearing capabilities,” he said.

Johnson and his wife hope go on one of the foundation’s mission trips this spring and view firsthand the joy that comes from someone hearing for the first time.