December 2011 Volume 8

Peter Maxwell’s Tribute to Wally Johnson

Peter Maxwell
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Ivan W. Johnson was one of six Johnson brothers who attended K.C. back in the 1950s. These were Cecil, the oldest, Maxie, Pat, Wally, Neville and Tony, and some people remember Wally as being – surprisingly enough – the quiet one. He did not accompany his twin brother Pat to the sixth form after the Cambridge ‘School Cert’ exam, but followed a passion for painting which put him in Art School in London in the early sixties. A few years later he was back in Jamaica, and – no surprise – back at K.C., teaching art.

Nearly forty years later, Wally eased himself from under the mantle of Principalship which he had carried for something like a decade.

You wouldn’t know it, but the teaching years were not always full of the sparkling wit, the ever-ready smile, and the reassuring wisdom that so many have associated with him. There were serious issues, school-related or not; intractable problems; times of stress and worry, of annoyance and grief, of disappointment and even anger. Wally brought to these a depth of understanding, an instinctive psychology, a courage and a compassion that won him the trust and co-operation of generations of pupils and colleagues, along with the appreciation of the wider K.C. family. Norman, Stewart and Paul, sons of his wife Terry and himself, were but the first of the thousands of boys he would nurture, at K.C. and beyond.

From his earliest teaching years, Wally had a breadth of involvement in the school which saw him being not only art teacher, but sportsmaster, a serious disciplinarian (in the early 1970s, he was – like the police – nicknamed ‘Beast’!), a confidant, and an initiator of efforts to provide guidance counselors, nurses, and a welfare fund in the school. It was not long before he was also sharing his literary and linguistic sensitivity and enthusiasm as a teacher of English and a keen promoter of drama and debating. He gave ready support to all healthy activities that would help to develop well-rounded pupils and develop latent talents, maintaining good relationships with the vibrant Old Boys’ and Parent-Teacher Associations. To many, it seemed that the only time when Wally’s car was not parked at K.C. was when he was attending an event in which the school was participating.

As a vice-principal in the eighties and early nineties, and subsequently as Principal, Wally gave principled support to the systems and programmes that guided the development of the school. (His enthusiasm was supported – often, some would say, held in check – by the indefatigable Vice-Principal, Helen Douglas.) It is perhaps as much a tribute to his infectious good nature as it is to the quality of the K.C. staff and the leadership of its most experienced teachers that one regularly heard reports of the engaging spirit and loyalty of the staff, both at Melbourne and at North Street.

When he retired, it was not clear whether circumstances would get Wally out of K.C. What was certain was that nothing would ever get K.C. out of Wally.

Five years ago, as he accepted the invitation to operate not Kingston but City College, a new private school set up on Red Hills Road, then relocated to Holborn Road, we saw the continuation of the flame that spoke of concern for wayward youth, pride in the successes of many, and a search for new approaches to the educational problems facing a large number of underachievers. His involvement, as always, was complete.

But his contact with the KC family remained strong. Past and present teachers, past and present pupils, ancillary staff, parents, board members, old-boy associations in the diaspora – all knew Wally’s contagious good humour, his clever word-play, his remarkable memory for sportsmen, Schools’ Challenge teams, model citizens – and rogues.

As we mark his passing, let us record our satisfaction at the privilege of knowing this inspiring teacher, this trusting friend, this selfless man.

P.M., Aug. 2011

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