By Heather M. McKeever
Helen Johnson, a graduate of the class of 1952, left her mark as an elementary teacher for 35 years in Kenmore, Orchard Park and Hamburg, N.Y. Helen retired as an elementary educator in 1985, but she continued to teach others throughout her life. Helen served in many capacities such as co-president of the PTA and president of the Hamburg Teachers Association. She received the Friend of Education Award and the New York State PTA Distinguished Service Award, both for post-retirement volunteer service.
Over the past several years, my professional relationship with Helen quickly grew into a friendship. I admired Helen as an amazing and kind person. As a development officer for the Fredonia College Foundation, I visit alumni and work toward building relationships that keep them well-informed and engaged with our campus and community. I remember my very first visit with Helen. She had just become a member of the College of Education Committee of Friends Society by committing to a $200 annual donation. Helen received me in her home with a warm welcome. We weren't too far into our conversation when Helen eloquently recalled her entry to Fredonia as a freshman student. She expressed gratitude for being chosen as the recipient of the Florence Eckhart Scholarship. The award was established in honor of Ms. Eckhart who worked as the director of elementary education at Hamburg School. Helen said she never forgot what the scholarship meant to her and her family. She felt it was time to reciprocate that same gesture of good will ando impact future students who also share a passion for teaching.
A Family of Educators
As I was sharing new developments with Helen, in walked her twin brother, Harold Johnson. Harold, nicknamed "Prof" in his class yearbooks, earned the distinction with a doctorate in political science from the University of Michigan. Harold worked as a college professor for 22 years, having achieved appointments at Canisius College and Michigan State University. In June 2009, Harold received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Hamburg Board of Education, which publicly recognized his career and volunteer involvement as a champion for educational excellence, service as a budget ambassador, a mentor, and supporter and friend to the school community. Harold continues to serve the community as a member of the Hamburg High School Finance Academy Advisory Board.
Harold also values education and the need to help others succeed. He established a scholarship at his own alma mater in 2006. Carrying on the role of a former professor, Harold continues as a mentor for his scholarship recipients throughout their four years at school. He anticipates that each scholarship recipient will have a successful career as they continue to contribute to his legacy. "I would like to think that each student who receives support from my scholarship will maintain a professional commitment, and this commitment, in turn, is the true legacy," stated Harold.
Following a Brother's Example
Helen had always been inspired by the engagement Harold had with his scholarship recipients. As I continued to visit with Helen over the years, our conversations led to the development of a similar scholarship model that Helen envisioned for the benefit of Fredonia students. Helen's passion has always been aligned to support public education and to help students who take part in the Hamburg-Fredonia student teaching program. As a result of her vision to encourage students to become public educators, the Helen L. Johnson Legacy Scholarship fund has supported five student scholarships. Helen has met four of her scholarship recipients, giving meaningful life to the legacy that will continue to follow. Both twins expressed, "We are grateful for the leadership given by the Fredonia College Foundation in developing a process where our gift has received thoughtful stewardship and financial security."
As I began writing this feature story Helen's health took a turn for the worse and she was put under hospice care. Helen passed away on April 21, 2015. What is incredible is that Helen knew this story was being written and that it would serve as a source of inspiration to others. During my last conversation with Helen, I asked how she would like to summarize the reason why she established an endowment at Fredonia. Why was it important that she leave a legacy gift?
Helen's answer was simple. "This is what it's all about: People caring and helping other people. This gives someone like me an opportunity to be part of something bigger - to be part of these students' lives, to celebrate their success. It is an honor to help grow the College of Education program as it brings me full circle to my own life as a student. This isn't my last chapter because with the scholarship I hand off my torch with new chapters being written by each recipient."
To learn how you follow Helen and Harold Johnson's example and leave a legacy of support for future Fredonia students, contact the Fredonia College Foundation at (716) 673-3321 or Foundation@fredonia.edu to discuss your options.
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