Helen Johnson spent four years in first grade. The first two she struggled; the last two she shined. That’s what Helen’s twin brother would tell you. So would she, for that matter.
Dr. Harold and Helen Johnson were raised in a simple home in Hamburg, N.Y. Although they were twins, Harold graduated high school a year before Helen. “She repeated first grade, because she didn’t learn to read,” Harold explained. “Our mother felt it was essential because there was a lot of twins in her family, for us to be separated.”
After graduating high school, Helen received a scholarship to attend Fredonia, which she graduated from in 1952. After graduation, she became an elementary school teacher.
Her first two years, she taught first grade.
She went on to teach third grade for several years, before settling into fourth grade. It was while Helen was teaching fourth grade in her hometown of Hamburg in 1972 that the Fredonia-Hamburg Internship Program was established to help Fredonia students prepare for a career in education. Helen was an active participant in the program until she retired in 1987.
Inspired by her twin brother, Harold, who had established a scholarship at his alma mater, St. Lawrence University, she created the Helen L. Johnson Legacy Scholarship in 2012 to fund $500 scholarships for Fredonia students enrolled in the Fredonia-Hamburg Internship program.
“This is what it's all about,” Helen later said. “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."
“Each student who received the scholarship became an ambassador for the public education that Helen was committed to,” Harold said.
Helen was able to meet four of the scholarship recipients, before her health took a turn.
Helen passed away in April, 2015.
After Helen’s passing, Harold worked with the Fredonia College Foundation to endow his sister’s scholarship fund. Through that endowment, and proceeds from Helen’s estate, the $500 scholarships have become $1,000 scholarships.
“It’s the true perfect circle, bringing together a talented Hamburg student who attended Fredonia, became a teacher, went back to work in that district and became a cooperating teacher, working with Fredonia students when the Fredonia-Hamburg program started,” said Heather McKeever, a Development associate with the Fredonia College Foundation.
By forming a new endowment fund through the Fredonia College Foundation, Harold will ensure the long-term viability of the Fredonia-Hamburg program that has successfully prepared more than 1,000 students to become elementary teachers since 1972. His endowment, which is deliberately focused on enriching the program itself, will also increase the value of scholarships awarded every year.
More than 75 members of the program’s growing family – administrators and faculty from Fredonia’s College of Education and the Hamburg district, Fredonia graduates who completed the program, the year’s teacher candidates and those who will follow in 2016-2017 – gathered in October 2016 to commemorate the teacher training program’s new name, the “Helen L. Johnson Fredonia-Hamburg Internship Program” and recognize Harold’s generous gift.
“We’re very grateful for this because it’s a legacy that certifies, makes evident and establishes firmly her commitment to public education and to the training that goes through here, and especially to the clinic-like environment that the program here in Hamburg is famous for,” Harold said. “Helen was a strong believer and supporter of public education. She was destined to be an elementary teacher.”
And now, she will help teachers in Hamburg for years to come in every grade. So maybe Helen Johnson isn’t done with first grade after all.