13 Dec 2017

Answering the Call to Serve

Answering the Call to Serve

Author: Wings  /  Categories: Campus, Wings  / 

The call to serve hits some people like the Chinook wind blowing off the slopes of the Cascades. It’s hard and fast and sudden, and it changes the direction of their lives forever. For others, like State Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, the notion of serving others is something that quietly grows within, nurtured from infancy by strong family values and fostered by a deep-seated love of community.

Johnson’s time of service to the Yakima Valley goes back decades, when he served as an educator in the lower valley, then as an elected official on several city councils before taking on the role of state representative for Washington’s 14th Legislative District.

His connection to Heritage begins close to the end of the university’s predecessor school, Fort Wright College, where he was one of the last to study at the Toppenish satellite campus and earn a degree under that moniker before the school closed and Heritage was born.

“We sometimes forget that Heritage’s history of making college education accessible in the rural areas of the Yakima Valley goes back much further than the 35 years that we’ve been called Heritage University,” said David Wise, vice president of advancement. “Our founding mothers Violet Lumley Rau and Martha Yallup were the reason why Fort Wright opened up its first satellite offices here in Toppenish and the reason why Heritage began from the remains of that institution when it closed its doors.

“The graduates of Fort Wright who earned their degrees here in Toppenish are Heritage’s extended alumni. They blazed the trail that our students continue to follow today.”

State Rep. Norm JohnsonJohnson is one such trailblazer. His story is one that is shared by many Fort Wright, and Heritage, graduates. Back in 1978, he was already well into his career, a teacher at Toppenish Middle School with more than 12 years under his belt. He had a family and responsibilities, but he also had the drive to further his education.

“I was a married father of five sons. There was no way I could take time away from my position for a year to two to earn a degree. We could never have afforded it,” he said. “Fort Wright gave us an opportunity that we otherwise would not have had.”

He enrolled in the M.Ed. in Counseling and Guidance program and started classes held in what was the McKinley Elementary School (which later became Petrie Hall on the Heritage campus). He graduated, became a school counselor, then the vice principal of the middle school, then principal of the district’s alternative school.

All totaled, he spent 32 years in education. His impact was felt by thousands and continues even today, long after leaving the classroom. In grocery stores and restaurants, even on the Heritage campus, he is stopped by smiling faces of former students, all excited to shake his hand and share stories of the past and the good news of their lives.

At the same time that Johnson was serving children and families as an educator, he was serving his community at large as an elected official. His resume of public service includes a combined total of more than 22 years spent on the city councils of Mabton, Toppenish and Yakima, the last of which, Yakima, came after he retired from education and moved to the city. Service as an elected official was a family value instilled in him at an early age. His father spent nearly 20 years on the Toppenish School Board. His mother was a community volunteer active in numerous service clubs.

It was during his time on the Yakima City Council that Johnson started thinking about participating in statewide politics. His good friend Representative Mary Skinner was in poor health and would no longer be able to be in office. When asked to run to fill her position, he agreed, and won the election. That was nine years and four terms ago.

In today’s political atmosphere, where parties seem to be polarized beyond all hope of cooperation, Johnson makes it a point to reach out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

“A lot of people in public office get a bad rap. Critics think you are dishonest or thinking only about yourself.But most people who serve do so for a good reason. They want what is best for their community and they want to help,” he said.

Johnson’s roots in education are never far from him. He is on several committees, including Capital Budget, Rules and Education. He is a steadfast supporter of the issues that impact the people in his district: affordable health care, good roads, safe communities, job creation, fiscal responsibility and, of course, education. For example, Johnson speaks passionately about the work being done so that the most vulnerable teens and children, those who are homeless, are safe and can get the education they need to give them a solid foundation for a successful life.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” he said. “We have to identify what we need to change in our laws so that they are not left behind. We have to work across departments and across party lines to get this done for these kids.”

When it comes to the successes of his hometown, he is its greatest cheerleader.

“Two of the best things to happen here in Yakima County are Heritage University and Pacific Northwest University of Medical Sciences,” he said. “I’m so happy to see so many people opening up their hearts and pocketbooks to both of them.”


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