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Building young minds -- Education in Detroit Lakes owes a lot to Grant Johnson

(This is the second part of a two-part series on Grant Johnson, who will be inducted in the University of Minnesota "M" Club Hall of Fame Sept. 18. He was also the Superintendent of Detroit Lakes High School from 1951-1966.)

Every community has leaders whose footprints are still seen many years down the road.

Some are made in the sand and are washed away as time crawls by, but some are made in stone and are still present over 50 years later -- like those of Grant Johnson.

The 92-year-old Johnson made a bigger impact in 15 years than most superintendents can in 30.

Fortunately for the community of Detroit Lakes, it was here Johnson left his footprints, which still are having a big impact today.

After taking the superintendent job at the Detroit Lakes School District in 1951, Johnson was the key player in spearheading the construction of Rossman Elementary School, the current high school and the Minnesota State Community and Technical College in DL.

As is proven today, passing referendum bonds for construction of new educational facilities by the public is a difficult and laborious task.

Johnson was able to pass not one, but three, bond issues by the public with glowing results. It wasn't easy, but from the actions taken over 50 years ago, today's educational system in DL is that much better and reaping the benefits of Johnson's work.

Coming in and changing ways

At first, Johnson almost didn't come to Detroit Lakes.

He turned down the superintendent job at DL after seeing some major challenges in the district's future.

The biggest one was the aging Holmes School, which was built in 1907.

After his graduation from the University of Minnesota and his Hall of Fame basketball career for the Gopher men's basketball team, Johnson taught at Cloquet.

He eventually earned his master's degree so he could pursue a career as an educational administrator.

"The state superintendent told me to take the Detroit Lakes job and said it's one of the larger school systems and it needed some leadership," Johnson said. "I caved into his wishes and became the superintendent."

In 1957, there was a spike in the population of students in the school district, forcing it to rent four churches to use as classrooms to lap up the overflow.

With the shoddy condition of the Holmes School and the inconvenient factor of being forced to use churches as classrooms, reasons were building up for a new high school.

Johnson also saw another grand opportunity of consolidating the 22 rural schools with the school district, thus broadening the tax base.

But that was easier said than done, since in 1958, rural schools were a staple in the countryside and people were set in their ways not to lose them.

"I went out for 22 nights to each rural district until 9 to 2 a.m. explaining why it was better to school their children in town," Johnson said. "Of course, there was some reluctance, but there were many advantages of closing the rural schools."

One carrot Johnson offered to the rural residents was giving the schoolhouse to them as a recreational facility or whatever they wanted to use it as.

But the biggest reason the bond issue passed by an 84-percent margin was the fact that all but one district actually had their taxes lowered, not raised, with the construction of the new high school.

"The only district which had its taxes increased was the one on Big Detroit and that was because there were a lot of students living out there," Johnson said. "The majority of the rural citizens voted for the bond. At first, I didn't even realize that taxes would go down, not up.

"For us to make a move for a new high school, we needed the support from the rural districts."

With each rural district providing an average of 15-20 kids (the east side had 40), the influx of students forced new additions on Lincoln and Washington elementary schools in 1958, as well.

"These kids came into schools with indoor bathrooms for the first time," Johnson said. "They had a library, music and art classes and most importantly, they could interact with kids their own age."

Busing was another challenge and Johnson had yet another perfect plan for that.

He divided three areas for the three busing companies in DL, which worked out very well.

"We had one of the best bus routes in Minnesota and I was pretty proud of that one," Johnson added.

Since the State of Minnesota Educational Board was encouraging the closing of rural schools -- there were 8,000 school districts in 1958 and only 467 now -- it looked well on Johnson's efforts.

Johnson also took care of the teachers from the rural schools.

The state board had a law stating teachers had to have a four-year degree for employment. Since the rural schoolteachers only had two-year degrees, Johnson convinced the state board to grant those incoming rural teachers the time to take college credits towards to earning their four-year degree.

"Twenty-one of the 22 rural teachers (one of them retired) accepted the offer," Johnson said. "They made more money and had the opportunity to advance their own education. Plus, the rural parents liked having a familiar teacher with their kids."

With the bond issue passed, the next step was to decide where to build the new high school.

Johnson noticed a 40-acre plot south of downtown, where a woman had her cows and a few horses grazing.

"I convinced her to sell it to the district," Johnson said. "In 1958, I then hired two architects from St. Cloud, because I was impressed with their work on the St. John University's campus."

Johnson had a direct hand in planning the new high school, along with the two architects.

Included in the plans were a new gym, swimming pool, all the spacious classrooms and a state of the art library.

The total cost for the entire project: $1.3 million.

"The new addition to the high school (which was put on just over 10 years ago) cost nearly $20 million," Johnson said. "That's pretty unbelievable."

The swimming pool was the first of its kind in a high school north of St. Cloud, while the library was large and one of the best of its time in the northwest region.

"Functional is a word we like," said Johnson in Oct. 8, 1958 Detroit Lakes Tribune article.

At the time of the school's opening -- which was Jan. 4, 1959 -- the district's enrollment was 2,531, with 1,377 in elementary, 628 in junior high and 526 in senior high (according to the 1958 article).

The new district had an estimated $5.5 million property value.

"Everything went pretty smooth up to the opening," Johnson recollected. "We had good weather during construction and the students just loved it. A feature was that all the rooms were painted in pastel colors, light and bright colors."

Another cost saving factor was the fact the entire district was run by three administrators -- including Johnson.

"We ran all the lunch programs, busing, curriculum and teachers," Johnson said.

With Rossman Elementary being built in 1951, Johnson's goal of having "neighborhood" schools was achieved, as well.

"I wanted the kids to be able to walk to their school and go with their friends," he added.

As far as the DL School District was concerned in the 1950s -- that mission was accomplished.


education is next

After building two new schools for the DL School District, up next was bringing into town a technical college for area graduates looking for secondary education.

George Legler, the chairman of the DL school board in 1964, approached Johnson about pursuing the opportunity of building a technical college.

There were already colleges in Wadena, Thief River Falls, Fergus Falls and other communities the size of DL.

The state wanted to expand the technical college number from 17 to 23, opening the door for DL.

"I was told if we could provide seven fields which would not compete with the other colleges in the region, we would get our tech college," Johnson said.

With that in mind, Johnson and others came up with the seven, with the biggest attraction being welding.

"I went to Fergus Falls and saw what they were offering and I found out farmers in the area wanted welders," Johnson recalled. "The other big ones were accounting and a construction program."

Try number three for a bond issue was the most successful yet, as 94 percent voted in favor of building a new technical college (what is now MSCTC), with the state helping finance the project.

"We had 600 kids enrolled the first year and most of them were from outside of Detroit Lakes," Johnson said.

Since then, MSCTC has attracted thousands of students to DL, leading to expansion of population and building in the community.

Batting 3-for-3, Johnson's legacy in the community for improving education was cemented.

Family life in DL was enjoyable

Johnson and his wife, Kay, stayed in Unit 7 at Fairyland Cabins for the first two weeks after he was hired for the Superintendent job.

The pair bought a house on 1124 Summit Avenue, where they would raise a family of five kids -- Kathe, Jeff, Jennifer, Candyce and Robbin.

Kay was also a graduate of the U of M, but Grant and her met as teachers in Cloquet.

"Growing up in Detroit Lakes in the 1950s and 1960s was like small-town America," said Kathe (Johnson) Schaffler, the oldest of the five Johnson children. "You left your windows open at night because there was no air conditioning in the homes or cars."

Schaffler had plenty of stories to tell of their days in DL while Grant worked in the school district.

"The Pavilion back then had screen doors and a big counter where food was sold throughout the day," she added. "A big slide and docks by the beach were always filled with kids. The roller rink and Kiddy Land were so popular and the A&W had the best frozen Snickers bars, not to mention that cold frosted root beer."

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, as Johnson's days as superintendent did after 15 years of service.

"I was making $14,900 and I just got the teachers a raise of $250," Johnson said of his last year in DL. "I was told I couldn't get a $100 raise, despite helping build those three buildings. I didn't feel too appreciated, so I told (the school board) they can have the job."

The first two hires for Johnson's job, ended up quitting within a week, leading up to the district not having a superintendent for the opening of school that year.

Johnson became assistant superintendent in Fargo for two years, as both Kathe and Jeff graduated from DLHS.

He then took the job in Buffalo as superintendent and he repeated what he did in DL -- by building a new high school, elementary and technical college there.

Johnson stayed in Buffalo for seven years, so in essence, he was the driving force behind the building of six educational facilities in a 22-year period.

He became a consultant for the State Department of Education, before retiring after 38 years of service in education.

One aspect Johnson was proud of was his writing ability. The state adapted brochures he wrote on unifying communities for education.

Detroit Lakes has always been a part of Johnson's life, and he still returns each summer.

Even at the age of 92, he takes a daily swim at the Detroit Lakes Cultural and Community Center and is active in Rotary.

"Detroit Lakes is a fine community and my family and I loved it here," Johnson said. "My advice to teachers is simple, too. You have only once chance to touch each (student) in your classroom. Be sure you accomplish that goal."

That advice is much like the community of Detroit Lakes having been touched by Johnson and all of his efforts to build the minds of the young.