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‘Mother figure of middle school’ remembered by faculty, staff after end of cancer battle

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(Photo used by permission of Nelson)
Former assistant to the head of middle school Barbara Johnson (second from left) with friends and colleagues Carol Wessels (far left), Julie Nelson (second from right) and Lonna Bloedau.

According to middle school science teacher Aleitha Burns, the world got a “little bit heavier” this past Dec. 31 after Barbara Johnson, former assistant to the head of middle school, died after a long cancer battle.

Her memorial service will be Friday, Feb. 2, at 4 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church (2425 Sierra Blvd).

Called the “stalwart of the middle school office” by retired art teacher Patricia Kelly, Johnson worked as the assistant to three different middle school heads (Barbara Ore, Quincey Tidey Grieve and Sandy Lyon) during her 19 years at Country Day.

She was “the pillar of the middle school,” who kept daily affairs in the middle school running smoothly, according to former middle school Spanish teacher Melissa McCarthy.

When I think of Barbara J, I think of her stability. She was always there – rarely in the spotlight – but always holding together the fabric of the Middle School. She was both the face of the Middle School – the first person to greet people in the morning and last person to say goodbye to at the end of the day – and the behind-the-scenes, understated master of the details of virtually every last part of the program.
Former head of middle school Quincey Tidey Grieve

She was the mother figure of the middle school, the glue that held everything together,” middle school teacher Ed Bolman said.

Keeping everything together meant interacting with the administration, teachers, students and parents as well as providing “clear, sensible guidance” when needed so that nobody was missing anything.

In addition, Lyon said that Johnson helped with scheduling, electives, ordering supplies and all the day-to-day operations of the middle school, even proofreading Lyon’s emails.

But what was even more remarkable than her “intellect” and “detail-oriented ways” was her emotional intelligence, her colleagues said.

It’s no wonder, then, that Johnson was known by some in the community as a “best friend.”

“Even with the personal problems I had, she was always there for me as a very good friend,” Kelly said.

“If things were weighing on me, she was there to listen and help,” Lyon added.

Lunch program coordinator Jennifer Adams said that Johnson’s compassion was never perfunctory either.

“Anybody could do that – listen to the kids or us – but to do it with as much heart as she did it with, that’s not in any job description,” she said.

Administrative assistant Erica Wilson agreed.

(Photo used by permission of Julie Nelson)
Barbara Johnson with her best friend of over 30 years, fellow SCDS staff member Rudi Rose.

“When I was down, she was one of the only people who made me feel better,” Wilson said.

“She brightened my day every single day; even just seeing her waving to me from across the quad – seeing her face – would make me feel better.”

According to McCarthy, Johnson “intuitively understood what needed to be done for students and colleagues, family and friends” – and did it.

“Barbara always knew how to brighten your day or ease a tense moment in a meeting,” middle school teacher Aleitha Burns said.

“Or if you or a child were hurt and crying, she always knew what to say.”

Her colleagues said one of the most frequent ways in which Johnson supported those she knew was with her sense of humor and contagious laughter.

(Photo used by permission of Julie Nelson)
Former middle school head Barbara Ore with her assistant, Barbara Johnson.

“She had such a quick wit,” high school librarian Joanne Melinson said. “I always knew that we were going to end up laughing when seeing each other.”

As Kelly said, Johnson was proof that “laughter and joy were truly the best medicine.”

“You could be down, but then she’d say a few words, make you laugh, and then you’d think ‘OK, this isn’t so bad; I can do this,’” Adams said.

Kelly said that one of Johnson’s best attributes was “her strong will,” and that there is no stronger evidence than her returning to work after multiple surgeries for her cancer.

“She took something that was very difficult in her life and said ‘No, I’m not going to be ruled by you, cancer; I’m going to live my life,’” Melinson said.

Since 2010, Johnson has battled various forms of cancer on and off, and several times during her tenure she had to miss work for treatments, surgeries and chemotherapy.

Many who worked with her said that she was a “steadfast” figure who’d stay “cool, calm and collected” in the “chaos” of middle school.

“She was unflappable,” Melinson said. “She was a quiet force.”

Burns said that Johnson’s calmness was contagious.

And she loved animals. She has had a few dogs over the years. She loved them, and it was when she was with them that she was in her element. Her most recent dog was Lucy, but she (used to have) these two skinny, tall big dogs, and she’d bring them in and they’d hang out in the office. Lucy was right there the Friday before she died with her snuggling up with her in bed.
Retired art teacher Patricia Kelly

Johnson didn’t stop helping even after her retirement on Aug. 31, 2017.

During the time she was retired, she assisted current assistant to the head of middle school Marisa Christie.

According to her friends, she was also an active member in the Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) for decades.

A dog lover, she gave rescue pets a new home, participated in the SCPA Doggie Dash and raised money through book sales to donate to the SPCA.

She was also a vegetarian for over 30 years, insisting on not eating “anything with eyeballs,” and Wilson said she could never bear seeing any of the campus trees cut down.

According to Bolman, lower and middle school teachers have suggested planting a tree in her memory, but it is still too soon for the community to have decided how to honor Johnson on campus.

By Chardonnay Needler

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  1. Scott Mayer on January 15th, 2018 3:56 pm

    Barbara was a lovely lady who always had great intuitive and caring words to share… Her spirit will be missed

    [Reply]

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