The year is 1964. She wakes up to the Beatles crooning “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” arranges her hair in a tidy beehive, hops into her Chevy Corvair and drives to work with fuel that set her back 30 cents a gallon. She is Shirley Johannsen and she is on her way to her first day of teaching at State Street Elementary School.
For many teachers, this story would end with a retirement reception in about 1989… a perfectly respectable length of time for the career of a dedicated professional. However, in 1989, Shirley Johannsen was just halfway through what has turned out to be a 50-year career in the teaching profession. As if that weren’t impressive enough, Ms. Johannsen has spent every one of those years at State Street Elementary, impacting the lives of thousands of Topeka Public School’s students- and adults- along the way.
One would think that Shirley Johannsen felt completely satisfied in her generous contribution of educating young minds, but for the incomparable “Miss J,” even that was not enough. Through the decades she also devoted her spare time to guiding students in extra-curricular activities, from athletics to the arts. Additionally, she took on the seemingly insurmountable task of restoring the school’s art-deco-style auditorium. Numerous hours were spent painting the historic theatre and refurbishing the aging fixtures. For Shirley, a “summer vacation” was merely another opportunity to do even more for State Street Elementary.
In a show of what can only be described as admiration and gratitude, a surprise ceremony was held for Miss Johannsen on Wednesday, November 20. Not only did the entire school and district administration come together for the event, but congratulatory letters poured in from dignitaries ranging from Governor Brownback to KU Basketball Coach Bill Self to Vice President Joe Biden. A video chronicling her years of service was produced, and State Street students spent weeks preparing a song they performed in her honor. Local media outlets arrived to capture the moment.
Finally, in a fitting tribute to the beloved teacher, State Street principal Sarah Sharp announced that the auditorium- the one that Miss J spent so many hours restoring- would be named in her honor. While there is no way to adequately thank Shirley Johannsen for all she has done for the children of State Street, her name and legacy will forever remain a fixture in the school she cared for so passionately. But, more importantly, her tireless dedication will never be forgotten by the thousands of students who were lucky enough to call her their teacher.
And to think it all started one morning in 1964.