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UWS educator Gary Johnson leaves living legacy

The Friends of Gary Johnson have adopted a stretch of highway and a park trail in his honor.

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Gary Johnson smiles during a fall walkabout at Pattison State Park in this undated photo. (Courtesy / Amanda Jean Beaulieau)
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Longtime University of Wisconsin-Superior educator Gary Johnson is being honored by former students and friends with environmental activism and storytelling.

A stretch of Wisconsin Highway 35 near Pattison State Park has been adopted by the Friends of Gary Johnson. They've made a similar commitment to clean the park’s Beaver Trail, as well.

“He loved that area,” said Amanda Jean Beaulieu, a UWS graduate. “What better place to honor him by doing some good in an area that he loved so much.”

The newest initiative "The Johnson Tales" podcast, features stories told by the educator and collected by Beaulieu through blobs of texts and Facebook messages. The first five launch Saturday, Oct. 2, on all podcast platforms.

A former assistant professor and director of the First Nations Center on campus, Johnson died in May at age 64. The educator grew up in Hayward and taught at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School and Lac Courte Oreilles Community College before moving to UWS.

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Gary Johnson, back left, poses with staff and students outside the First Nations Center on the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus in this undated photo. Contributed / Amanda Jean Beaulieau

He was more than a teacher, former students said. He was a mentor and a friend.

“Being with Gary was a life-changing experience,” said UWS Provost Maria Cuzzo.

For Beaulieu, who is part Native American, Johnson opened a new doorway.

“At that time, it was really the first, kind of exposure that I had to my culture … I was not raised on a reservation; I was raised down in Red Wing. I didn’t have anyone to teach me about the Ojibwe culture, and that is what he did for me,” she said.

The educator helped her through homesickness, checked in with her on classwork and invited her to help harvest wild rice.

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“He just had a way of connecting with students and walking through them with their struggles, whether it be personal or educational, just being right there alongside you and seeing you through whatever it was,” Beaulieu said.

A parking ticket brought Brooks Midbrod and Johnson together.

The educator wanted to know if anything could be done about a parking ticket his wife received from Midbrod, who was working for campus security. When Midbrod said no, Johnson ended up laughing. The two began ribbing each other about football, Vikings versus Packers.

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University of Wisconsin-Superior educator Gary Johnson poses with an award after being named Indian Elder/Educator of the Year 2018. Contributed / Amanda Jean Beaulieu

“It was almost like an instantaneous welcome,” said Midbrod, who now lives in Silver Bay, Minnesota. “I saw something, I can’t explain it, but it was something that said ‘family’ to me.”

Former students remembered the many activities they did together, from holding annual pow wows and winter camping courses to leading a fall walkaround of Pattison Park, attending conferences and winnowing wild rice.

"It was an experience of discovery for students who came from combined backgrounds, especially if they had never pursued their Native American lineage," Cuzzo said. "It was remarkable to witness a student literally reclaiming and discovering parts of themselves that they never knew existed."

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The teacher's door was always open, said Georgia Swanson, who spent more than 16 years as Johnson's administrative assistant.

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Gary Johnson, fourth from left, poses with students and staff from the First Nations Center on the University of Wisconsin-Superior in this undated photo. Contributed / Amanda Jean Beaulieau

"I loved every minute of it," she said. "He was a wonderful person."

Johnson was known for his contagious laugh, his sense of humor and his honesty.

Cuzzo met him in the early 1990s as he was organizing a program on tribal sovereignty. They later team-taught a course on tribal mediation. He was, she said, an amazing ambassador between cultures.

“Gary really believed that one of his missions in life was to make Native American culture, and particularly the Anishinaabe peoples’ culture, accessible to broad audiences,” she said. “If he could just get people to understand more about Indian history and Native American cultural practices and all these things, that would form natural bonds between people.

"That was one of his greatest gifts, was his willingness to be so open about his culture and to share it with all audiences," Cuzzo said.

Students said he pushed to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day and supported American Indian Studies in Wisconsin, known as Wisconsin Act 31, that requires public schools to provide instruction on the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin's 11 American Indian nations and tribal communities.

The teacher formed connections that lasted.

"I stayed in touch with him from the day I graduated up until the day he died," Beaulieu said. "I went from having him as a mentor to a dear friend. He was just always kind of this person that was supposed to be there in life."

Now, his students and colleagues are passing on his lessons.

In addition to the clean-up efforts, the friends group is discussing plans to bring back other initiatives Johnson started, such as the fall walkaround.

“Although Gary should have a monument erected for what he contributed, Gary has left living monuments, I think, in the hearts and minds of everyone he interacted with. He certainly did that with me, and I was a colleague,” Cuzzo said. “I have watched the hundreds of students that he has a similar effect on. They’re his living monument. There’s no doubt about that in my mind. Gary lives on in the hearts of everyone he touched.”

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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