Nov. 13, 2006
Shaping a community
By Kristen Miller
Even after being offered a job in Washington DC, Russ Johnson and his family decided this DC was their home, and Dassel Cokato is pleased to have him.
Born and raised in French Lake Township, seven miles north of Cokato, Russ Johnson was a Depression baby and a wartime teenager.
“I had two strikes against me,” he said.
He attended Birch Lake School until eighth grade. “I graduated both valedictorian and dunce since I was the only one in my eighth grade class,” Johnson said.
He then graduated from Cokato High School in 1947, which made him the first of his immediate relations to graduate.
After graduation, he began farming and doing custom work including bailing, combining, and field chopping.
“I couldn’t go to college because my parents were still recovering from the Depression,” he said.
Johnson began working part time as an electrician with his brother. In 1950, he married his wife, Betty Olean from Annandale.
In 1953, Johnson was drafted into the Army during the Korean Conflict.
“I was very fortunate I didn’t get assigned to Korea,” he said. Instead, he was stationed throughout the United States and spent two years, in charge of the battalion officers’ records.
When he returned home, Johnson and Betty bought his parents’ farm.
In 1961, he was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to be one of three people in charge of all the federal agricultural programs for the state of Minnesota. Johnson became a policy maker for all the farm programs and heard appeals by farmers.
“I told him, you don’t owe me [money], just a good government,” he said.
In 1969, Johnson was transferred to Washington DC as a program specialist in the appeals division in the State Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Committee.
Johnson, his wife, and their four children, went to Washington to make a decision on whether to move or not.
“With a 6-0 vote, we voted DC was home for us. Dassel Cokato, not the District of Columbia,” he said.
“This is a really good community to be a part of,” he said.
Then, in 1973, Johnson was encouraged to run for school board, where he served 26 and a half years due to the transfer of election from spring to fall, he said. He spent 17 of those years as chairman of the board.
“It was an enjoyable challenge,” he said.
What Johnson enjoyed most about serving on the board was working cohesively with the staff and administration and providing educational opportunities to the students, he said.
During his time, Johnson was a part of the board that began smaller class sizes.
Even before other districts, classrooms were reduced from 25-30 students in kindergarten through third grade, to 20 students or less.
“This was a cornerstone of the educational system,” he said.
“We realized this is when students learn study habits and they need more individual attention,” he said.
Also, Johnson helped to get Community Education started with a joint powers agreement between the district and the cities of Dassel and Cokato.
In 1994, he served on the board that developed the character building pillars. These are defined by what the district and the community felt were character building traits, including respect, responsibility, resiliency, integrity, compassion, and understanding diversity.
“There were more people involved in this than any other decision,” he said.
Teachers are still emphasizing these pillars today, he said.
Along with the pillars came the development of the courtesy and respect award. This monthly award recognizes students on their good character.
Johnson has learned many things in his life including that he’s “not always right and everyone’s not always wrong,” he said. But he has also learned an understanding of diversity.
“Realizing we’re all different. There are good and bad things about everyone,” he said.
In addition to all the lessons he has learned, Johnson believes, “One of the most important gifts a father can give their children, is to love their mother and show it,” he said.
Even at the age of 77, Johnson is still working hard. When people ask him about retiring, he says, “When you retire a car, you bring it to French Lake Auto Parts, they dismantle it, and sell it. But instead, putting on a new set of tires is “retiring,” and it can get another 100,000 miles.”