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Johnson heads in a new direction

Jim Johnson received the College President of the Year award from the Minnesota State College Student Association at its annual awards dinner April 12 in Breezy Point, Minnesota. (photo courtesy of Chris Dang)1 / 3
Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical established the Jim Johnson Legay Scholarship Fund to honor Johnson and his years of service to the college. At a breakfast at the St. James Hotel the retiring president said he wanted the fund to be about helping the needs of current students, not about recognizing his personal accomplishments. (photo courtesy of Southeast Technical)2 / 3
Jim Johnson stands with former first lady Barbara Bush and his wife, Mary Johnson, (right) in 2000. (Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical archive photo)3 / 3

Jim Johnson’s first step into the world of higher education was a short one.

On his first day at a junior college in northern Illinois after sitting through a mandatory music appreciation class, he left and never returned.

Johnson went to work as a machinist and one summer day he saw a young kid in the shop get his hand caught in a press, crushing his fingers. Johnson realized that could have easily happened to him and it was that moment he decided to go back to school.

More than 40 years later, at the end of June, Johnson will resign his post as president of Minnesota State College–Southeast Technical.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Johnson said of leaving the institution where he spent the majority of his professional career.

Johnson started with the college as the trade and industry coordinator, working his way through the positions of adult extension director, associate director, vice president and CEO and has been in his current position since 1995.

The 61-year-old Johnson said it’s the right time to leave while he still has his health and the ability to enjoy his retirement.

Retirement, however, doesn’t mean he won’t be working. Johnson said he plans to drive trucks part time; he has his Class B license and will soon have his commercial driver’s license.

Another incentive to retire was the ability to spend more time with his 3-year-old grandson.

“It’s just time to enjoy life a little bit,” he said, adding as a college president there is an event or something he could attend in his official capacity almost every night of the week. Johnson said he won’t be moving, however, since his wife is from the Winona area and they both love what southeast Minnesota has to offer.

Johnson attended a junior college in Rockford, Illinois, and played football, earning himself a full-ride scholarship to the University of Idaho. But after a year of only being able to take nine credits a semester — not the 18 he wanted so he could finish on time — he decided to leave.

He finished his degree at University of Wisconsin-Stout and stayed to get a master’s degree. Johnson taught an industrial arts class in Sparta, Wisconsin, for a couple years before moving to Denver to work as a graphic artist for a friend who started his own company.

After moving to Houston when the company opened another plant and working an average of 96 hours a week, Johnson said it was time for something new. He applied to work at Southeast Technical in 1981, then called Winona Technical Institute, and has been there ever since.

Evolving education

Johnson said a lot has changed since he started with the college. He was there when the Winona campus merged with the Red Wing campus and when the school became a part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system in 1995.

One of the biggest frustrations for Johnson is seeing the decline of state funding for state institutions. State support has dropped close to 30 percent in the last 10 years, he said.

“That’s probably my biggest regret: we just haven’t been able to convince the policy makers this is a bad direction to go,” Johnson said.

Even with cuts in state funding, Johnson said he has seen the two-campus college become more of a player in higher education over the years.

The college remains conceptually based, he said, but becoming a part of the state system has allowed students to transition more easily to four-year degrees.

Johnson said there are a lot of emotions surrounding his retirement, going back and forth between relief and wanting to complete some of the unfinished projects that incoming president Dorothy Duran will take over.

Ultimately, Johnson said it’s time to leave some of the stress behind.

“I’m just ready for a change,” he said. “I wasn’t this gray 10 years ago.”