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Woman of the Year - Legacy: Jane Johnson left her mark on the Community Colleges of Spokane. Expo ‘74 and the MAC, too.

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 25, 2020

Jane Johnson, being honored as a Legacy Woman of the Year, was one of the first women to become a community college representative and the first from the West Coast to chair the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, an international organization dedicated to supporting colleges and universities.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Jane Johnson, being honored as a Legacy Woman of the Year, was one of the first women to become a community college representative and the first from the West Coast to chair the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, an international organization dedicated to supporting colleges and universities. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

If you attended a community college in Spokane, you have, in part, Jane Johnson to thank. If you attended Expo ’74 or benefit from the event’s lasting impact, you have, in part, Jane Johnson to thank. If you’ve visited the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture at its current location on First Avenue, you have, in part, Jane Johnson to thank.

Johnson grew up in the Pacific Northwest and attended high school in Sandpoint, but her impact on Spokane began practically without her knowing it, when she was living in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband and two daughters.

Johnson’s mother, after hearing about the creation of the community college system, marched into the office of then-Spokane Community College president Walter Johnson (no relation) and said, “I think you need to meet my daughter.”

The younger Johnson had graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in communications, with an emphasis in broadcasting. She then earned a master of arts in communications from UCLA.

“She was my agent,” Johnson said with a laugh. “When she read about the community college starting up as a comprehensive institution, the merger of the technical/vocational and the academic side of the educational system, she thought, ‘That’s something I think my daughter might be able to do.’ ”

Johnson interviewed for the position during a trip to Spokane to escape the Arizona summer, then went back home. She was offered the position in early August and started at the college when it opened its doors in 1963.

“I feel like sort of a pioneer,” Johnson said.

Johnson created the speech program and worked as a speech instructor before moving into administration in 1967 as head of the communications and development program.

In 1972, she helped for found the Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation, and after several years with the Community Colleges of Spokane, Expo ’74 came knocking. Or rather, the board of Spokane Unlimited, which was tasked with determining how feasible the event would be.

Johnson took a one-and-a-half-year leave from the Community Colleges of Spokane and worked on communications, publicity and events. She traveled with gymnasts and basketball teams from the Soviet Union and U.S., building excitement for what was happening at the world’s fair.

“Of course, there were lots and lots of challenges along the way,” Johnson said, ticking off things like start-up costs, gathering community support and battling negative press, primarily from East Coast outlets. “Sometimes when you look back on it, you wonder that we were ever able to pull it off.”

After Expo ’74, Johnson returned to the Community Colleges of Spokane, where she worked in total for 25 years.

“(The Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation is) going to celebrate 50 years in 2022, and as of the end of our fiscal year for 2019, because of what she started, we’ve given almost $19 million in support to students,” said Heather Beebe-Stevens, executive director of the Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation. “She did so much to establish the foundation as a trusted place for the community to invest in the future of the community. She wants to create pathways for community members to give back 50 years from now. Yes, for right now, but also 50 years.”

After her time with CCS, Johnson worked at Eastern Washington University as the vice president for university advancement. A decade later, Johnson retired, though that only lasted for about six months before she joined with the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, helping raise funds for a new facility.

“I have loved every moment of my career,” Johnson said. “I feel so lucky to look back on the years, and there are a lot of years to look back on. I really had a great career. Whatever assignment I had, I was working with a tremendous bunch of professionals. Wherever I went, it was really a team effort, and I’m very grateful for the tremendous career I had. I had a great family that was supportive, and I’m thankful for God everyday for the absolutely fabulous time I had over the many years.”

Johnson is proud of the work she’s done over the years, and is especially proud of all the students whose lives were improved by their time in community college, but she is now officially retired and is enjoying spending time with her family, which now includes grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But Johnson’s impact on Spokane will last, as Beebe-Smith said, for years to come. Not just at home, but nationally. Beebe-Smith pointed to Johnson’s role with Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an international organization dedicated to supporting colleges and universities. Not only was Johnson one of the first women to chair the organization, she was among the first community college representatives and one of the first from the West Coast to lead the group.

“She’s a really, really cool person who’s worth emulating and who has given so much, yes, to Spokane, but also to our state and clearly through her service with CASE, to national and now international higher education advancement,” Beebe-Stevens said.

“She’s one of those people that her name is not going to show up in history books, but she’s one of the ones who creates history.”

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