Many of my friends and former classmates are mourning the loss of a former teacher today.
The news of Jeffrey Johnson’s passing takes many of us back to our high school days, to our interactions with him and how he changed our lives.
I never had Mr. Johnson as a teacher, however.
Instead, he changed my world as a friend, and I realize now – suddenly, now that he’s gone — what a debt of gratitude I owe the man.
As the crow flies, my family home in Orrington, Maine, was just about two miles or so from Hampden Academy, the school from which I graduated.
It was directly across the Penobscot River and from certain points in Orrington you could look across the river and the see the school.
By car, however, it was 13 miles away … six-plus miles to Brewer, across the bridge to Bangor, and six-plus miles to Hampden on the other side of the river.
When I made the decision to transfer from John Bapst Memorial High School to Hampden Academy for my senior year, transportation was my biggest hurdle.
This is where Jeff Johnson changed my life.
I had known Jeff prior to my year at Hampden Academy. In fact, looking back on it, I had known him when I was in middle school.
He lived in Bucksport, the town south of my hometown, and was a regular visitor to the convenience store my mother and step-father owned.
As one of my stomping ground places where I spent much of my time, I got to know Jeff and his wife, Pam, also a teacher, enough to ask them a big-time question leading into my senior year.
Could I hitch a ride to school every day?
As far as I know, they never gave it a second thought.
So pretty much every morning from Labor Day of 1983 to graduation in 1984, I would walk a half mile from my house to the Main Road where Jeff and Pam would pick me up and allow me to attend Hampden Academy.
Every morning, we would talk about life and love, family and education.
(As an athlete who always stayed after school for practices, I rarely if ever got a ride home. Instead, I hitchhiked the journey home … though that, too, became a regular journey of regulars who would pick me up and drop me off at certain spots).
The Johnson family decision to allow me to ride with them to school changed my life.
First and foremost it allowed me to avoid attending Brewer High School, a thought I dreaded.
It gave me a new set of friends I still care about to this day.
And, it opened my door to two new English courses, one of which was journalism, pushing me further down the path that would become my life’s career.
I’m sure I thanked Mr. Johnson for the rides back then, but only today – after hearing of his passing – did the magnitude of them hit me.
My heart hurts knowing he’s gone, but what an effect he had on so many lives, as a teacher … and as a friend.
Thanks again, JJ.
May you rest in peace.