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Friday
Sep062013

Betty Johnson: The Tip of the Iceberg

In addition to advocating for gifted children, Betty Johnson is the City of Minnetonka historian. In 1971, she founded the Minnetonka Historical Society and played a pivotal role in the acquisition of the historic Burwell House. In 2002, she authored the book MINNETONKA MILLS: A HISTORIC PROFILE IN PICTURES AND STORIES. She gave city history bus tours (pictured above) in 2006 and, every year over the last four decades, she's passed on local history to school children and other groups through a history slide show.[This personal profile of my mother was originally published in OUTLOOK, September/October 2013, Vol. 36, No. 3, a publication of the Minnesota Council for Gifted & Talented.]

You’d think I’d know enough by now to write about my mother, but when your mother is Betty Johnson, a modest yet prolific participant in civil service, arts and education, it’s tougher than you think. So, recently I found myself back visiting my childhood home. As I sat across from my mother at the large oak kitchen table, I learned more about her life than a 750 word article could ever cover. That said, bear in mind that I have an iceberg of knowledge, but only the tip of it will get the ink on this page.

Betty and her husband Bob still live in the Minnetonka house where they raised their five children since 1968. In 1972, when their oldest was 17 and on his way to Stanford University, Betty gave birth to their fifth child, Miriam. Miriam read Dr. Suess’s Red Fish, Blue Fish at four years of age and displayed an early talent for acting when given an audience. Betty recognized these and other precocious traits from raising her older children and, as do many parents of gifted children, began searching for and creating ways to challenge her youngest. Betty’s activities led to decades of service advocating for all gifted and talented children in Minnesota.

In 1979, Betty initiated formation of the Hopkins MCGT chapter. In that same year, she helped found and then become the director of West Suburban Summer School until her retirement in 1996. In 1985, West Suburban Summer School became a program in the new Gifted and Talented Department of Intermediate School District #287, a 13-district consortium of the western suburbs of the Twin Cities. Inside and outside of MCGT, Betty’s worn more hats than I have fingers to count. Within MCGT she’s held the positions of president, treasurer, chapter coordinator, director of MN Gifted Awareness Project (a three-year collaborative effort funded by Northwest Area Foundation), annual conference co-chair with Shari Colvin (for the last 14 years), and 30 years as the newsletter editor, a position she still holds today.

I remember in the early years hearing my mother’s machine gun-like Selectric typewriter ra-ta-ta-ting away on articles for the MCGT newsletter as she sat at the same oak kitchen table. At first, Betty literally cut and pasted the typed columns onto 11”x17” stock paper for traditional printing. Today, she types up the articles on her Mac, sends the files to Tony Rinkenberger, MCGT webmaster, and he puts them into a layout program before sending the 12 to 24-page file on for digital printing.

Some of you might recall Betty as “the voice of MCGT.” Before the internet, if people had a question, they called the MCGT office and left a message. When staff was either too busy or absent, Betty responded to phone messages and helped guide families to resources—not unlike she did in her first job out of college as a social worker helping military families stationed at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

“For years she was the first person many of us talked to when we started our journey as parents of GT kids—a voice that was reassuring and encouraging,” says Kathy Geary, now chair of MCGT’s advocacy project. “I’ll always remember speaking with Betty as I began to consider the possibility that my kids were gifted.  Betty listened carefully, offered reassuring feedback and sent me a list of books and resources.  She threw me a lifeline as I began the journey of parenting GT kids.”

How does a person become so committed, heart, soul and mind to gifted kids? Long before Miriam was born, Betty’s personal experiences established her sense of curiosity and service. “I went to a four-room school in Ames,” she says. “When I finished my fifth grade work, I’d listen in on the sixth grade lessons—taught in the same room. By the end of the school year, the principal invited me to move ahead to seventh grade.” Betty had no problem keeping up with her classmates on or off the field in junior high as one of the smartest students, the tallest seventh grader and the first girl recruited for the kickball team.

In eighth grade, Betty began six years of working in the Ames City Library after the librarian recognized her love of reading, especially science fiction and mysteries. In college, Betty received her B.S. in Home Economics from Iowa State. “It was the major that allowed me to take the most electives,” says Betty. “I took history, geology, astronomy—even a class called woodworking and weaving.” She came full circle in her formal education by completing her M.A. in gifted education curriculum and instruction from the University of St. Thomas in 1994.

Remember that iceberg I was telling you about? You’ll have to ask Betty yourself about what lies under the waterline regarding her employment and/or leadership with: General Mills, Minnetonka City Council, Minnetonka Historical Society, Music Association of Minnetonka, City of Eden Prairie, Hennepin County libraries, Stages Theater Company, Youth Performance Company, Perpich Center for the Arts, Odyssey of the Mind, Hopkins Schools Spelling Bee, AFS Intercultural Programs, YMCA, Metropolitan Zoo Advisory Committee, and much more.

Betty would be happy to talk with you over a jigsaw puzzle at the kitchen table any time. After all, there’s a lot more room—and peace and quiet—now that she’s put the typewriter away.