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Secretary Tearfully Leaves School ‘Family’ after 27 Years

Becky Johnston will miss a lot of things about being the principal’s secretary at Kenowa Hills High School. But the autistic students who sort and bring her the office mail each morning – well, she will miss them especially.

“They tell me they’re all done, and I give them a piece of candy,” Johnston said, her eyes tearing up. “I’ve seen them grow. They’re special.”

Sure enough, on her last day at the school, students Kyle Templeton, Charlie Hubert and Kelsey Bush brought her the mail in a manila envelope. In return, Johnston gave them each a piece of candy and a big smile.

That’s the kind of thing you come to cherish in 27 years of being a secretary at the same school. It goes a long way toward explaining the tears that rolled down Johnston’s cheeks as she prepared to leave.

“It’s like you’re walking away from your family,” said Johnston, who retired in late January shortly before her 65th birthday. “There’s not a single person in this building I don’t have a heart for.

“I can honestly say I’ve loved every day, every month and every week I’ve worked here.”

Funny thing is, she never wanted to be a secretary before she was hired in 1988.

“It was never something I was remotely interested in,” Johnston said with a smile. “It’s funny how God works.”

Becky Johnston

‘She Truly Cares About People’

Every school has one: the secretary you get on the phone or see behind the counter when you want to talk to the principal. Johnston has been that person for five Kenowa High principals: Jon McCarthy, Paul Van’t Hof, Gary Rider, Peg Mathis and Katie Pennington, the current principal since 2011.

Johnston has done her job exceptionally well, not just in her work efficiency but in her warm way with staff, students and parents, Pennington said.

“She truly cares about people. When she asks about your kids, she’s not just making small talk,” Pennington said. “She’s a wonderful face to put on the building.”

Example: Johnston always baked cookies for teachers on their birthdays. She did the same for Pennington’s kids.

“I’ve learned a lot about how to treat people by watching how Becky treats people,” she added.

Johnston had mutual regard for Pennington and the other principals for whom she’s worked. “My bosses have been incredible from the get-go, and she’s no exception,” she said.

Johnston was a stay-at-home mom when she was hired as a paraprofessional for her daughter Kerry’s fifth-grade class at the former Marne Elementary School. When a job was posted for a budget secretary at the high school, Johnston, who had worked as an accountant in business, applied and got it. Not long after she was made secretary to the principal.

Off to Disney World with Grandkids   

The post entails plenty of duties: making sure classrooms are staffed when a teacher is out sick; making the morning announcements; filing required state reports and updating course descriptions, as well as answering the phone and making appointments for the principal.

Boring? Not a bit, Johnston insists.

“The beauty of my job is it’s something different every day. I have variety and that’s what keeps me loving it.”

But clearly it was the family feeling that tugged most strongly at her heartstrings, as Johnston prepared to leave on her final day. While she showed the ropes to her replacement, Lynn Ferguson, staff members brought her candy and other mementos in batches of 27. They had thrown her a party a week before.

“My makeup is not staying on very good today,” she said, dabbing away tears. “They’re going to need to push me out the door at 3:30.”

Fortunately, she had a plan in place for the following week: a trip to Disney World with her husband, Ernie, her children, Keith and Kerry, their spouses and her five grandchildren. It was a trip she thought up with Ernie, who faithfully saw her through a bout with breast cancer after he retired four years ago.

“I have always wanted to see Disney World through the kids’ eyes,” she said, with excitement dancing in her own.

Still, it was hard to leave the family she’d worked with for 27 years.

“I shouldn’t have blinked,” she said. “It just went so fast.”

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Kenowa Hills High School

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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