"WE LOVE YOU, LINDA, AND YOU WILL BE MISSED!'
Not long after the late Director of PEL Academic Advising and Student Services, Linda Johnson, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a condition also referred to as cancer of the blood plasma, I had the distinguished honor of conducting an interview with her. As usual, Linda took the time to step out of her office to greet me in the hallway, before inviting me into her office, welcoming me with courteousness and sparkling charm. Linda was a refined lady, whose string of pearls enhanced her Audrey Hepburn grace.
Already feeling like the experience was all about me, she welcomed me into her office. After she was certain that I was as comfortable as possible, we began to discuss her recent diagnosis. “I will never forget it,” Johnson said, “because we [she and her longtime partner, Richard] had just finished supper when the phone rang. The call was from Dr. Perkosh. He said that there was a possibility that I might have cancer.”
Along with the agonizing uncertainty of their results, the multitude of tests began. She and her closest friends felt certain that the odds were in her favor. She had a perfectly healthy lifestyle, which included yoga, weight training and a solid family history of living to ripe old ages. These conditions would surely preclude her from anything but impeccable results, she thought. The tests began in March 2011, and, by June 2011, Johnson, who was 5’2” and petite, began her brutal battle. Sadly, she also discovered that the cancer had reached stage II. All of this from some routine blood work testing from a routine doctor’s appointment.
Linda asked me, again, if I was comfortable and would I like some water and asked me if the air temperature was at a good level for me. At that point, I asked her something that I had always wanted to learn from her. Any of her advisees knows that Linda was able to make anyone feel like they are important, that they matter to her more than anyone else on the planet. “Under the circumstances, Linda, how is it that you are making me feel so important?” I asked
In her own very delicate way, she responded, “I think it’s a matter of respect for the person sitting in front of you, and caring enough about them to give them your full attention, and having enough faith in yourself and the process of what needs to happen to know that I’m not taking anything away from the other responsibilities I have if I give you however much time we’ve allotted to be together.”
Linda also took the time to express her gratitude that she worked for Eckerd College. At a time like this she knew that there must be others who realized they, too, had cancer and might feel the stress of losing their job. She expressed, “I have never felt that way here at Eckerd.” Then, we began discussing her path in education.
Linda remembered that in the third-grade, her teacher gave the class an assignment. She and her fellow students were charged with writing down what they wanted to be when they grew up. Linda wrote: “I want to be a teacher,” and she told me, emphatically, that has never changed.
In 1970, Johnson received her undergraduate degree in elementary education, from Augsburg College, along with her certification in kindergarten and preschool teaching. Even so, her first job, out of college, was in Japan, where she taught English to businessmen. Not long after that job ended, she spent many happy years teaching preschool.
Later, Linda moved to Wisconsin, where, in 1982, she earned her master’s degree in guidance and counseling, with an emphasis in higher education from the University of Wisconsin, in Oshkosh. She was hired as the supervisor of all of the residence hall directors. “Oh! The things you saw!” Johnson exclaimed. “Every time I thought I had seen everything that an undergraduate student could think of to do, a new thing would come up. It was fascinating!” Johnson worked at the University of Wisconsin for fifteen years, even acting as president of their regional organization.
After Richard, Linda’s partner of nearly forty years, retired, they moved to Florida, where she took some time off. According to Linda, she tried for three months to do nothing but tan, workout, and simply enjoy Florida. She recalled that experience as both wonderful and boring. The boring, she explained in this way: “The day that Regis and Kathie Lee is interesting to me, is the day I need to do something different.”
This marks the beginning of Linda’s remarkable contribution to so many lives in our community. She recalled submitting her resume to Eckerd College’s Sarasota Campus and trying to find its location, at 2050 Oak Street. “We kept going, we kept going, we kept following the numbers, and then we hit 301, and I thought, well, we hadn’t hit 2050, yet, but, we could see a church ahead of us, so we proceeded down the street to this Presbyterian Church.” Johnson said she and Richard walked under a covered walkway. That began her time with the college. “We [Eckerd College] were the best kept secret in Sarasota. The rest is history,” she says.
Our communities, families and personal lives have been forever changed by Linda Johnson, who passed away on September 15th, 2013. A Celebration of Life Service was held on September 28, 2013 at noon at the Palms-Robarts Funeral Home.
Additionally, Linda will be memorialized by the Sarasota City Commission for her countless contributions to the greater area of SW Florida. A date is being set for the family to receive a plaque in honor of a memorial resolution for Linda Johnson by the City of Sarasota.
Sarasota City Auditor and Clerk and 2004 Alumna Pamela Nadalini, says, “I believe Linda Johnson is the reason I was successful in achieving both my academic and professional goals. She never left my side. Even after I graduated, she was there. Her spirit will forever embrace our community.”
2003 Alumna Debra Piner, M.Ed., adjunct professor and teacher, texted me that “Linda changed my life. I would not be a teacher or probably on the doctoral path without her gentle guidance. She helped us form the Eckerd Writers Group, where I discovered my voice. My heart is breaking.”
I, personally, sat before Linda, a nervous forty-year old man with a past of which I was not proud. I had chosen to major in American Studies. After having read my application essay, Linda said, “I’d like it if you would, at least, take an introductory creative writing course.” Within six months, I was editorial assistant for Susan Burns at Biz941 Magazine. She changed my life, as she has so many others.
Johnson’s determination to help as many people as she could before she died was evident in her refusal to accept an offered clinical trial. This treatment might have extended her life, but it would have more likely interrupt her availability to continue helping students. Following through with standard therapy allowed her to be more active. (Remember, she was not a daytime television fan). She was unwavering in her decision that she would actively help others as long as possible. “I do not want to live as though I am dying,” Johnson told one doctor.
Through the support of those who loved her, Johnson became something of a student, herself. A good friend sent her a book called Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino by Joyce Rupp. She told me the lesson in this book helped her to learn to accept her new limitations. Additionally, she learned through the many gifts, cards, letters and calls that not only was she loved tremendously but that it was OK to say when enough is enough, as it pertained to her weakening body. She tried to stop placing the highest expectations on her new self.
Explaining her lesson from the previously mentioned book, she said, “I’m easier on myself. You know—like asking Richard to do some things that I would normally do, which, of course, he was happy to do. And, sometimes I needed to say I’m tired. I can’t do anymore this week.”
Eventually, our conversation led to acceptance, and here is where I am probably the most permanently affected by this experience. Linda Johnson’s gracefulness cannot be overstated.
Linda began to talk about “clouds with silver linings,” then she cupped her hands and reached them out to me. She asked me to imagine a small gift box, in her hands, wrapped up in a colorful bow. She said, “Everything we are given is a gift. We need to find out for ourselves what it is.” The gift she received was not her terminal illness.
Linda explained, “You have to say, OK, this is a situation I never thought I would be in, it’s a situation I don’t want to be in, facing death sooner than I want to die, facing the pain and the things that can come with the advanced stages of this disease. But, what is in this gift I hold in my hands? So far it has been my coming a whole lot closer to a lot of people in my life. I feel love and affection all around me all the time. There are so many people who never get that gift in their lives.”
Thank you, Linda Johnson. You are a beloved teacher, mentor, co-worker and friend to all who knew you. You will be missed.