Johnson retires from community ed.
Posted on: Jul 23, 2021
Two decades into her career as an analytical chemist at 3M, Diane Johnson decided to change course.
The impetus was her extensive volunteer work with the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, where she directed a flute program for students, served on the Community Education advisory council and was a member of citizens’ committees in support of school referendums.
“I spent a lot of time back in those days, more than 20 years ago, thinking about what I would do when I retired,” Johnson said. “I figured I would do a lot of volunteering in the school district because I was finding my involvement there to be very meaningful and very fulfilling. And so I came to the conclusion, why don’t I become a professional in Community Education instead of waiting until I retire so I can volunteer for it?”
After 23 years in the field, including the last 17 as the Community Education director in Delano, Johnson retired at the end of June.
“Diane made Delano Community Education what it is today,” said Delano Community Ed.’s Youth Development Coordinator Chris Runke.
“She had such a passion for Community Education!” said Community Ed. administrative assistant Sarah Kennedy. “She helped us grow our programs, update our building, and helped us stay involved in the community at large.”
Transition to Delano
After deciding to shift from the corporate world to education, Johnson enrolled at the University of St. Thomas to obtain her master’s degree in Community Education administration. She started evening classes in 1996 while maintaining her full-time job at 3M, and graduated in 1998.
Johnson took her first position in November of 1998 as a long-term substitute for the Community Education director at Watertown-Mayer. The following year she had an opportunity to interview for the position permanently, and was hired. The native of Slayton in southwestern Minnesota found the return to small town life a good fit.
“In a larger district everybody is very highly specialized,” Johnson said. “At the point I started in Watertown I just had a half-time secretary, so every afternoon I answered the phones, waited on customers and set up classrooms for classes in the evening. In a smaller district you do it all. And I loved the variety. I could not have had a better training ground than to be in a smaller district where you literally do it all.”
Due to extensive state budget cuts, Delano and Watertown-Mayer eventually entered an agreement to share a Community Education director in 2004, an arrangement that lasted until 2009 when Johnson came to work exclusively for Delano.
“Delano is special because of the level of community engagement and the level of community involvement,” she said. “I think the city’s tagline, the ‘Spirit of Community,’ says a lot. We’ve had strong programs, and we have growing programs.”
Johnson said her current leadership staff members in Delano are among the hardest-working and most dedicated individuals she has had the privilege of working with. In turn, they have appreciated her supportive style that helped them develop as professionals.
“I think what stands out most to me about working with Diane for 10 years is how she trusted her coordinators enough to let [us] run with our ideas, no matter how ‘out there’ they were,” said Tiger Kids Club Coordinator Becca Seiberlich. “She supported the ideas we had for changes and growth, and as we took the lead she was in the wings, always offering support, feedback and an ear to listen.”
“Her staff always came first, and we knew she would be there for us when we needed her,” he said.
“Diane was wonderful to work with,” said Kennedy. “She was kind and empathetic and really willing to help out when we got overwhelmed.”
Johnson also wasn’t afraid to experiment with program possibilities.
“She was a very optimistic person when it came to offering new classes or events, and she always wanted to try everything to make a class work, no matter how small,” said Kennedy.
Highlights and challenges
The biggest challenge of Johnson’s career has been the COVID era of programming.
“COVID has given all of us a new appreciation for the complexity of the operations of the school district,” Johnson said. “Every decision that is made impacts everything else that happens. So that’s been a real challenge, but one we’ve successfully navigated. I feel good about that.”
Among Johnson’s top highlights were the expansion of programs, an effort to ensure Community Education employees had access to health care prior to the Affordable Care Act, a restructuring that yielded Delano Public Schools Preschool, and a constant opportunity to grow.
“Our theme is ‘lifelong learning,’ and I still learn something brand new almost every day in my job,” she said.
Johnson also enjoyed her community-enhancing efforts with groups like the Delano Area Council on Arts and Culture, the General Federated Women’s Club of Delano, the Spirit of Community Commission, Delano United Diversity Task Force, and more.
“That’s one of the things I enjoy, the freedom to do some of those things that help build community in other ways,” she said. “So I’ve done a lot of grant writing to bring funding into the community for arts activities.”
The state of Community Education
At her departure, Johnson said the state of Delano Community Education is strong, even with some of the COVID-related challenges that will likely linger for some time.
“We were having probably the best year we’d ever had when the pandemic hit. We were full-speed ahead. Programs were booming. Financially we were doing well. Everything was just great,” she said. “But then COVID decimated Community Ed. programs throughout the state – not just us. But right now our summer registration is very strong. Our registration numbers are improving, moving back up the scale toward normal, so we’ll be recovering. It will take a while. It won’t just happen in one season. But we’ll be moving back more toward our normal operations. We’ll dig our way out of the COVID hole.”
Part of her confidence is based on the strong staff in place, but Johnson also thanked community members who have provided their input both recently and in the past.
“We have had a strong Advisory Council over all of these years, with dedicated and knowledgeable people on it who are well attuned to the community, so I appreciate their input and their leadership,” she said.
Eric Erlandson has stepped in as the new director, and Johnson plans to ease into retirement in the months ahead.
“After 23 years of a very intense schedule, I’m going to slow down for a while,” she said. “I’m going to do a lot of reading. I have things to tend to at home that I’ve not had the time or energy to deal with. So I’m going to slow down, regroup and spend time with friends. But I’ll miss being around here. Community Ed. has been a great field to work in.”
Her staff wished her well.
“I will certainly miss her attention to detail, her kindness, and her humor,” said Kennedy.
“Diane sincerely cared about Community Education and all of the work that went into ensuring quality programs are offered to our community members,” said Runke. “I will miss the passion that she brought to work each day that helped inspire us to do the best we could for our community each day.”
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