A Hope woman who has dedicated her life to preserving and promoting the history of the town has been named The Republic’s 2016 Woman of the Year.
From overseeing the move, renovation and staffing of the historic one-room Simmons School to Hope, to her decades-long tenure as board president of the Yellow Trail Museum, Barb Johnson has contributed to the future of Bartholomew County by preserving the past of Hope.
“Barb is a tremendous leader,” said Bud Herron, former publisher of The Republic and a Hope native. “She doesn’t lead by figuring out where the parade is going. She leads by example.”
It was her work on various projects, along with her ceaseless volunteer efforts, that led to her selection as the 35th Woman of the Year.
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“She’s interested in the community and the people in it,” said Jane Keller, a fellow Hope resident. “I don’t think anyone has asked her to do something that she didn’t do.”
Johnson’s volunteerism is, in part, about bringing history to life, with an eye on the past and another on the future.
“There are a lot of small towns dying. But for some reason or another, that’s not the case with Hope,” said David Webster, another Hope resident and colleague of Johnson. “I think she helps Hope continue to turn the pages.”
Barb Johnson was born Barbara Thayer, although she has always been known as Barb.
She was raised on a farm just outside of Hope, the child of Tom, a teacher, and Mary Thayer. She grew up with two sisters, Linda and Susan, and attended Clifford School.
“We were the usual farm family in that I had to do some work on the farm,” she said. “We had to learn how to can and feed chickens and herd sheep.”
Along with farming, Tom Thayer was a teacher, as were Johnson’s grandparents and other extended family members.
Johnson recalls being asked to help other students when she was in elementary school.
“The teacher would say, ‘Will you work with so-and-so to help them get caught up?'” Johnson said.
At age 6, Johnson was helping her peers.
“(Teaching) just seemed to fit,” she said.
After her mother opened the Hope Department Store, a shop stocked with clothing and shoes and sheets and towels along with other sundries, the family moved into Hope and Barb Thayer graduated from Hauser High School in 1966.
A calling to teach
After earning a degree in elementary education from Ball State, she taught for a year at a Las Vegas elementary school.
She returned to Indiana, working as a substitute teacher in Lafayette, and the following year was back home in Hope, where school administrator Glen Keller offered her a job. In 1972, she began teaching second grade at Hope Elementary and after a few years switched to third grade.
Hope native Amanda Colb, now of Indianapolis, said she looks back on her time in Johnson’s classroom fondly. These memories, along with her grandmother’s prompting, led Colb to become one of several people who would nominate Johnson for the honor.
“I remember her compassion and her sincere commitment to her students,” Colby said. “I never saw her get angry. She was nothing but nice, compassionate, sincere and genuine and all of the things a teacher should be.”
Johnson was raising her daughters, Allison and Amy, as a single mom. It was a daunting undertaking, she said, but more attainable in Hope.
“When you live in a small town, the neighbors watch out for each other,” she said. “You need a babysitter? Your car won’t start? Someone pitches in.”
By 1984, her oldest daughter was involved in the local history club, Little Hoosiers. When the main sponsor, Candy Carr, left, Johnson was nudged in as the sponsor.
In 1986, she landed on the board of directors of Hope’s Yellow Trail Museum, a role in which she would serve until 2015.
The Yellow Trail Museum serves as a collection of “everything Hope,” Johnson said. “We don’t purchase things. They are donated out of houses and out of attics and estates. As you wander through, if you listen carefully to the stories, you learn a lot about what Hope was and what Hope is.”
Also in 1986, she married Ed Johnson, who grew up on a farm southeast of Hope and had two sons, Bill and Gary. With their union, Barb Johnson converted to her husband’s Moravian faith.
Because of her research into Hope’s Moravian roots, she found the transition from the Methodist teachings, in which she was raised, to the Moravian Church to be smooth. Equally smooth was the blending of families.
“She was good at putting the two families together,” Ed Johnson said.
Barb Johnson had also put together a life of teaching and volunteering, of preserving history while shaping young minds.
“I taught at a period when you didn’t have to teach to test,” Johnson said. “You could have lots of interesting, hands-on activities.”
But the Simmons School project would prove to be the most hands-on of all her activities.
The idea of recreating a one-room schoolhouse in Hope was Keller’s idea, Johnson said.
The two of them had known each other well when the longtime Hope school leader came to Johnson with a proposal in 1988.
Keller had started a committee that would investigate the possibility of moving a one-room schoolhouse from the Hope area to the elementary school property.
“He said, ‘It’ll take us 10 years to make the decision. Would you like to sit on the committee?'” Johnson said. “I thought, I don’t have time to do this. And my husband said, ‘We’d love to!’ And lo and behold, we were on the committee.”
The Johnsons were among 30 people named to serve.
After the first meeting, Johnson became hooked on the idea. She motivated her elementary school students to help with the project and in just 10 days they gathered $2,500.
Bigger donations followed.
Johnson led the children on field trips to scout schoolhouses and the children wrote articles to the local newspaper, stoking public interest. The students settled on a brick schoolhouse with a bell tower, donated by Kenneth and Julia Bense.
Students and committee members worked with experts to put together a moving plan. The building would be moved, all in one piece, at a cost of $40,000 and over the course of two days in September 1989.
After extensive renovations, the doors of the Simmons School opened 1992.
Students from around the state — some 90 classes a year — now put away their cellphones, don old-fashioned clothing, pick up their lunch pails and head to Simmons for a day-long experience.
Serving on the committee, Johnson said, has “probably has been the most rewarding experience that I’ve had. Thank goodness my husband said yes.”
For her work on the one-room schoolhouse project, she received the Sagamore of the Wabash Award — one of the state’s most prestigious honors — in 1992.
Although Johnson retired from Hope Elementary in 2003, she continues to serve as head schoolmarm of Simmons School.
After Johnson’s retirement, she continued her work at the Yellow Trail Museum.
Noticing that Veteran’s Day programming had faded from the schools, she brought it over to the museum, with a luncheon followed by video recording of veterans’ stories.
“They came in one at a time and they videotaped whatever story they wanted to tell about their service,” Johnson said. “It turned out to be a remarkable set of tapes. Usually someone would come with them. And when they would finish their story, their family member would turn and say, ‘I never heard that before.'”
Recalling the stories, which have now been converted to DVD and will soon be edited into a new presentation for Yellow Trail visitors to view, Johnson teared up.
“These stories were extremely emotional for the men or women that were telling them,” she said. “I was usually the videotaper. Almost every story ended with the person in tears. And they almost always had a statement that it was something they had to do for their country, but they never wanted anybody else to go through it. They didn’t consider themselves heroes for what they did.”
Johnson would also serve on the Hope Christmas of Yesteryear board (2004 to present) and the committee for the Old Fashioned Independence Day Celebration (2011 to present). She received the Teacher of the Year Award in the Hope school district in 1988 and 2000, and won the Edna Folger Outstanding Teaching Award in 1995, presented by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.
Up to the task, any task
Not unlike the veterans who shared their stories, Johnson does not consider herself a hero. Despite an impressive stack of nominations for Woman of the Year and a résumé full of awards, Johnson is resolute in recognizing those who have worked on assorted committees.
“When you see something that needs to be done, you just do it,” she said. “There are a lot of people working for a lot of important organizations and a lot of the time those people aren’t recognized. Men and women are working hard to get things done that they truly believe in.”
The next item on Johnson’s agenda is the reintroduction of the Rural Letter Carriers Association Museum, a building on the Hope Town Square that could no longer safety store fragile exhibits and was razed last year as part of a $100,000 town square beautification project.
Hope was selected as site for the museum because it was one of the first communities in the country to offer rural mail delivery. For now, museum contents are in storage under the auspices of the Yellow Trail Museum while Johnson works to locate a building.
“There are lots of unique experiences, lots of unique things to see, lots of things to learn about this community,” she said.
She continues to find puzzle pieces of local history. Each new donation to the museum brings a new revelation about town, Johnson said, and each new revelation gives her something new to cherish about Hope.
Recently, while going over Martin Hauser’s diary, she uncovered another chapter in the Hope founder’s life.
Having moved to Illinois to start another Moravian congregation, that is where Martin Hauser thought he would end up being buried, and where many thought Hauser’s story ended.
But, Johnson said, in the later years of Hauser’s life, he returned to Indiana, met a friend and remarried — all in Hope.
“This was the town he founded,” Johnson said. “This was the town he loved.”
That’s a bond that Hauser and Barb Johnson — separated in life by 150 years — shared.
“People need to realize that Hope is a unique place. Hope is a very important part of Bartholomew County,” she said.
To the people of Hope, Johnson — just like Hauser — became one of their respected leaders.
Her friend Herron sized up how that came to be.
“You know you’re the leader in one way: You look behind you to see who’s following,” he said.
Woman of the Year nomination letters — and dozens more supporting signatures — form the start of a long list of people who were convinced about Johnson’s vision and passion for their beloved hometown.
The Republic’s Woman of the Year award was founded in 1982 by the late Jean Prather when she was The Republic’s features editor.
The award’s purpose is to recognize one woman from Bartholomew County for unselfish contributions toward creating a vital community and a high quality of life with an emphasis on long-term activity, hands-on work and diverse involvement.
The winner receives a custom-made necklace, and is awarded $2,000 from The Republic to be given to her designated charity or charities.
Barb Johnson will be honored as Woman of the Year during a 5:30 p.m. reception Oct. 17 at Donner Center. It will include snacks and beverages. The public is encouraged to attend.