Nancy A. Johnson ’48, M ’56 was the first female physical education teacher in the history of the Holland Central School District in Erie County, N.Y. During her 35 years with the district she created many of its athletic programs for girls and coached basketball, field hockey, softball and volleyball. Johnson was inducted into Holland’s athletic hall of fame.
Her legacy, however, will reach well beyond Holland Center. A $1.2 million bequest —received by the Cortland College Foundation after Johnson’s passing at the age of 88 in 2015 — will help transform lives for years to come. It was the largest unrestricted gift received by the foundation on behalf of the College.
"It was truly humbling to learn Ms. Johnson chose her alma mater for this wonderful and generous estate gift,” said Peter C. Perkins, vice president for institutional advancement. “Its impact will be far reaching, as it will allow the College to carry out strategic initiatives that serve important needs of faculty, staff and students that might otherwise be impossible to support, given the ever-competing demands for limited state support."
A native of Westfield, Chautauqua County, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1948. She continued her education over the next eight years, also taking courses at Canisius College, the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State Teachers College before getting her master’s at SUNY Cortland in 1956.
Her methods were strict and traditional, but Johnson was admired by her students. The yearbook staff dedicated its 1981 edition to her.
“She always had a clean pair of white sneakers,” said John Meader, a neighbor and friend who taught at Holland with Johnson. “If they ever got dirty, she’d get a new pair. She was very, very rigid in her philosophy that kids ought to listen when she talked. But she was very caring.”
Her contribution to the Holland community was felt more than three decades after she retired from teaching. Johnson made a lasting impact in the lives of countless students in her teaching career.
“I conducted her funeral. I did the eulogy,” Meader said. “We had a church full of people. When you teach for as long as she did, nearly 40 years, you touch a lot of people.”
Animals, music and travel were among Johnson’s other passions. She was adept at the coronet, trumpet and piano and enjoyed trips to Alaska, California and Hawaii.
Johnson was predeceased by her devoted friend Elizabeth Fisher, also a Holland teacher. Johnson inherited Fisher’s assets and also invested heavily in mutual funds and savings bonds to build her eventual gift to Cortland.
“Nancy was, to put it bluntly, frugal,” Meader said. “In my early years as a teacher, I did odd jobs and I remember painting the house for her. She’d come out with a lawn chair and supervise and sit and watch and make sure I didn’t waste paint.”
Johnson’s friends can laugh about her thrifty habits when they look back on her life. Yet the greater campus community will benefit from Johnson’s generosity in countless ways in the years ahead.
"Through Ms. Johnson’s support, our world-class faculty and staff and our bright and talented students will be able to continue to strengthen and enrich a culture of engaged learning that changes lives on campus, in our local community and beyond," Perkins said.