Behind the scenes at The Cove…A Faithful Servant

By Corinne Holmquist
Garlene greeting guests upon entering the Training Center

Push past the double red doors of the Billy Graham Training Center into the lobby with the living-room feel, and you might catch a glimpse of petite five-foot-two-inch lead hostess Garlene Johnson.

People have told her she resembles Norma Zimmer of the Lawrence Welk Show. “Not because I sing, but because of my big hair,” she teases.

But Garlene is more than her cute blonde bob. You’ll see her slender hands busy touching up and tidying around the place. Hands reaching out to greet and guide guests toward the dining room or auditorium. Hands clasped in prayer with someone over an illness or death. Or failing marriage. Or job loss.

Across from where she stands hangs a painting of her friend, Ruth Graham. “I like to look across the room at Mrs. Graham’s picture and think that as I greet guests…they feel they are entering the living room in her own home,” Garlene says, adding she always felt warm and comfortable there.

Garlene standing near Mrs. Graham's portrait

At 77, “and proud of every year”, Garlene is the longest-employed hostess at The Cove, logging in 20 years of service and memories.

“She’s the “quintessential Southern Belle” says Scott Holmquist, Cove executive director. “She’s known for her graciousness and warmth.”

Her touches, big or small, help people unwind so they can rewind with God in the seminars and surroundings ahead.

She’s lady-like, yes, (she doesn’t like to pump her own gas). But fragile, she is not. (She once owned a rifle thinking she could scare off an intruder, but gave it away). Blessed with energy, she’s presently planning 20 weddings for this year at Montreat College and Montreat Presbyterian Church. Through it all, Garlene’s compassion oozes from her life experiences knowing that God loves and leads you through the hard times. Being organized helps, too.

Born in Lincolnton, N.C. in 1935, Garlene was the oldest of three daughters. Her dad died in a car accident when she was 8; he was 39. Ironically, her grandfather also died at that age.

“Over the years I just accepted it as God’s will. Their faith (of her grandmother and mom) gave me the faith to go on,” she reflects.

Garlene moved to Montreat attending college, working, and later marrying Kay N. Stutts. They were blessed with two daughters, Joy and Becky. Garlene soon taught middle and high school English in nearby towns. She also taught Sunday school to two of Billy and Ruth Graham’s children: Anne and Ned.

When Kay suddenly died at age 49, Garlene clung to God, again remembering the faith of her grandmother and mother who were widowed early. Years later, Garlene found love a second time, marrying George L. Johnson, the widowed father of Karlene Shea, who is married to George Beverly Shea.

Sadness struck again when George, a “Christian gentleman of prayer and the Bible” (like her first husband), died after a long illness. “It was still a shock,” she says.

Garlene as a new Cove employee in 1991

In 1991, Garlene ventured into a seminar at the Cove. One of the managers, whom she knew from church, asked if she would like to volunteer as a hostess.
“Oh yes,” she said without hesitation. “I didn’t even have to pray about it. I’ve been there ever since.” She’s found inspiration from those who enter The Cove.

One couple she met several years ago had a daughter suffering with brain cancer for three years. “Each year as they returned, their spirits were uplifted as they waited for the Lord to call her home,” she recalls. “What an inspiration this couple was to me!”

“I also met a young boy in a wheelchair. He was born without legs and had stubs for arms. As he was leaving, he asked if he could give me a hug. What a precious hug that was—one of the best I have ever had!”

Says Garlene: “The years that I have worked at The Cove have been… rewarding. As I enter the property, I feel that I am on ‘holy ground’ where the property has been prayed over by so many, for so long. When I begin work, I am with my Cove family where we like to begin our day with prayer and devotions.

It’s fun to meet guests from all over the world. Some have been to the Cove numerous times; others for the first time. I hear exciting stories about how God has worked in their lives through speakers, worship, and through that ‘still small voice.’”

It’s a voice she’s heard before. And as guests walk through the doors of the Training Center carrying life’s loads, Garlene’s touches for the kingdom continue.


When Garlene prays with guests, she often uses these verses from the NIV:

Isaiah 41:10:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Lamentations 3:23:
“They [compassions] are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”

Psalm 139:23-24:
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

If you would like to learn more about The Cove and possibly meet Garlene in person, click here to visit our website.

11 thoughts on “Behind the scenes at The Cove…A Faithful Servant”

  1. Thanks for sharing notes like this one;
    I admire women like her, greeting and doing what She does is a blessing to the people that comes trhough those doors and the tone of voice will also set the atmosphere for others to enjoy their visit.
    So what an awesome job but I will say She must be so full of God because it’s only there we find our happiness and happy people are contagious! in good way, what a blessing!
    I appreciate notes like such.
    Evelyn Mason

  2. Garlene,
    What a joy to log on and see this article about you. I loved working with you!!..You were always kind, professional, and loving to everyone. You are one of the people that make the Cove such a wonderful, caring place.
    Love you, BEV HIGLEY

  3. Thank you for the lovely story of a lovely lady who always greets with a smile when I enter the conference center and she is there. I have attended there since 1990 and another precious lady is Mary Beth, who I met on my very first trip.
    May God bless the entire staff today.
    You are blessed to be on “Holy Ground.”
    Mary Robertson-Hendricks

  4. What a delightful woman and of such faith and love for her God and for people in general. My sister has been to the “Cove” on numerous occasions for seminars, with her friend from First Baptist Church of Orlando, and got some real blessings out of it evey time she attended. I can’t go there myself, because of my infirmities, but will be praying for the “Cove” and all its employees as well as guests. Thank you so much and may God richly Bless You.

    1. Thank you for your prayers, Charles. God bless you, brother! We are thankful your sister and her friend have received blessings from The Cove. We hope to see them again.

  5. I would like to bring my family to the Cove sometime. Do you have group accomadations for families to use for reunions? And could you pray for my son who has bi-polar and is having a real hard time with his medications. He is only 20. He also has asperger’s syndrome and his difficulty with social skills hurts him so in dealing with life situations. I would appreciate this so much.

    1. Hello Karen. We are praying for your son. God loves him so much and we love him too. As to your family reunion question, we ask that all gatherings are spiritually reflective. All programs and lodging are open to adults ages 18 and over, and to youth ages 15-17 when accompanied by an adult. Youth ages 12 to 14 may also participate in An Evening at The Cove and Christmas at The Cove programs and lodging when accompanied by an adult. Call the reservations number at 1-800-950-2092 to discuss options. God bless!

  6. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Garlene Johnson for many, many years. We have quite a story. She was my 6th grade teacher and I loved her so very much; her confidence in me meant so much to me at that young age. I would periodically see Garlene throughout the years and she was always the same sweet person. In 2001, life brought us full circle when I began scheduling weddings at Montreat College and working with Garlene. Not only do I value our friendship and the work we share, she has been one of the godly women I look up to who always exemplifies grace and love to all.

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