When Jan Johnston was 11 years old she asked for a horse. Her family lived in the city and her dad, Ray Litzinger, told her she had to earn the money to buy one, never considering she’d actually do it.
After two years of baby-sitting, hot walking horses, mowing lawns and earning money any way she could, his daughter had saved $75 and negotiated the purchase of an old mare named Blue.
“I was told, ‘there’s something in the backyard I’m going to show you,’ ” said Litzinger with a laugh, describing how she’d brought the horse to their city backyard, “for shock value.”
He let her keep Blue and she continued working odd jobs to pay for boarding and hay. It was an early example of the determination, hard work and passion that Johnston was known for throughout her life.
In May, Johnston died at age 59 after two months fighting soft tissue sarcoma.
Whether she was showing horses competitively, raising her two boys, going back to school in her 40s, taking care of her dad or working with families who had children with hearing loss, those who knew Johnston said she constantly inspired them.
“I admired her zest for life. She had 30 hours in every 24 hour window,” said Kim Schafer, development director at HOPE School, a nonprofit Johnston founded in 2004 to help children with hearing loss develop listening and spoken language skills.
Like buying Blue, HOPE School was the result of Johnston’s vision, passion and hard work.
While working with children who had cochlear implants, Johnston wished she could help them beyond their limited hours of therapy.
So she founded the school and worked hard to foster its partnership with the EWU Department of Communication Disorders and WSU Department of Speech and Hearing as well as area school districts.
“She had tremendous energy. She had compassion, from the horses to the kids,” said her husband, Jere Johnston, recalling how she’d spend her time off working with patients and creating a community for the families she served.
The Johnstons hosted barbecues at their home, took families boating, and taught some of the children to ride. She also started a support group for teens and hosted an annual Christmas party for the families.
“Hearing loss can make a child lonely,” Schafer said. “She tried to help every child. No child felt left out.”
Schafer experienced that care first-hand. Her daughter, who had cochlear implants, went to Johnston for listening and speech therapy.
Schafer recalled Johnston volunteering to attend a school meeting as an advocate on her daughter’s behalf.
“It was out of the goodness of her heart. It was the coolest to watch,” said Schafer. “Jan had all this research, laws. She was so well versed. It was like you had a lawyer next to you.”
That drive and expertise earned the trust of her patients and the respect of her colleagues.
For Lisa Watson, Johnston was a mentor who became a business partner and friend.
“I was excited to work with Jan Johnston because she was the guru of listening and spoken language,” said Watson, who opened Spokane Speech Language Pathology with Johnston in 2010. “Everybody referred to her. She was the only listening and spoken language specialist in our area.“
To earn that international designation, Schafer said Johnston completed three years of certified coursework, documented 900 contact hours doing listening and spoken language therapy with children who had hearing loss, and passed a rigorous application process and formal exam.
Johnston was known for learning and doing whatever she could to help hearing impaired children, such as learning to sign because it could ease the transition to spoken language.
“She was the only one in our area with the knowledge of the hearing devices but also the ability to sign. She could teach the kids and families about the technology and what was happening but still give the signs,” said Watson, adding, “She lived her life to serve other people. She would do anything for the families she served or other professionals that needed her help.”
Watson recalled how Johnston drove to a patient’s home for therapy because the family didn’t have a vehicle and lived too far away to commute without hardship; she wasn’t reimbursed for her time or mileage.
“She felt the child needed to be seen, so she saw that child out of the goodness of her heart by going to that child’s home,” said Watson, noting that personal care also made children gravitate to Johnston, whether she was playing with them on the floor during therapy or teaching them to ride a horse at her home.
“She went above and beyond to make sure she was doing as much as she could,” said Shaffer. “She was all about everybody else … 100 percent of all waking hours she was giving.”