Victor Nathaniel Johnson

1893-1988

Victor Johnson, a violinist, was born in Racine, Wisconsin, the son of Henry and Hannah K. Johnson. By the time of his death, at age 94, he had taught for over sixty years, at two Adventist colleges and five junior and senior academies.

Johnsonís first known appointment was at Walla Walla College, now University, in 1921. Although he had studied violin at a conservatory in Colorado and with Carl Engel at Union College, he sensed his need for improvement and immediately enrolled for violin study in the Edgar Fischer Conservatory in Walla Walla and joined the local symphony.

When Edgar Fischer suddenly died during Johnson's first year at WWC, he studied with Fischer's interim successor, Gottfried Herbst, for a year. What Johnson lacked in knowledge and experience, however, was made up for by an enthusiasm that immediately boosted morale for the string area at the college and created sustained growth in the orchestra over the next seven years.

In 1928, he turned down an invitation to chair the department and, instead, accepted a position at Washington Missionary College, now Washington Adventist University, in Washington, D.C., in order to study with J. C. von Hulsteyn, noted violinist of the time, and complete a degree at Peabody Institute of Music. Within the first year at CUC, however, he was leading the college orchestra, performing as a violin soloist and playing in chamber groups, and had started a band at the school. As the second year began, he accepted leadership of a glee club, added a second orchestra, and was directing another band at the Review and Herald.

In spite of all of his responsibilities, Johnson started study with von Hulsteyn and work on a music degree, but not at Peabody, as originally planned. Instead, he enrolled at the Von Unschuld University of Music, doing a program that strengthened his performance and knowledge of theory, and provided teachers' courses. He completed a B.Mus. degree in the spring of 1932.

Two years later, Johnson accepted an invitation to return to WWC to chair the department. He established an Oratorio Society as he arrived, started a preparatory division at the college, and expanded the outreach of the school to include classes in the nearby town of Milton-Freewater. The Walla Walla Symphony also asked him to conduct the orchestra, a position he accepted but left after two years because of his schedule at the college. He continued to play in the symphony, however, serving as concertmaster and playing viola and cello, as needed.

For the next ten years, Johnson provided effective leadership in the program and led a variety of choral and instrumental groups. When he left WWC in 1944, he had served there for seventeen years, the longest tenure of any music teacher since the founding of the school.

Johnson was asked in the late 1980s by Thomas R. Thompson, a 1935 graduate of Walla Walla College, what had been his funniest experience while at WWC, and he related the following with obvious amusement:

I had been teaching all day and was on my way home, carrying my violin. I stopped at the college store, where a retired Adventist pioneer minister walked up to me and said, "Say young fellow, I see you have a violin. Now I like violin music. Would you be willing to come over to my house and play for me sometime?" I said I would be happy to, and we set a time.

I went over there and, since I'm a classical violinist, I played a waltz and then some snappier numbers. He was fidgeting a great deal and finally he said, "Can't you play Turkey in the Straw?"

I told him I was sorry I didn't know the piece, but that I could play the Irish Washer Woman. After I played it for him, he thanked me and I left.

About two weeks later I went to the store again, carrying my violin and was approached by the same old gentleman. He walked up to me and said, "Say, young fellow, I see you have a violin. Now I like violin music. Would you be willing to come over to my house and play for me sometime?"

I started to say, "Sure, I'd be glad to do that," but he went on, "I had a fellow over there a couple of weeks ago, and he didn't know beans!"

He completed his career by teaching both full- and part-time in California at Lynwood, Fairview Jr., Escondido Jr., Yucaipa Jr., and San Diego academies. By temperament a quiet unassuming person, he had both a delightful sense of humor, often telling jokes at his own expense, and a bit of a temper. Known as "Professor Johnson," he loved to work with young children as well as perform and conduct and, as he left the college, continued to do so until he was ninety, long after officially retiring, often giving lessons without charge if the students could not pay.

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Sources: Walla Walla College school paper, The Collegian, 1921-1928 and 1934-1944, 1 November 1934 (experience at WMC, degree); Washington Missionary College, now Washington Adventist University, newspaper, Sligonian, 5 October 1928, 2 November 1928, 2 May 1929, 14 November 1929, 6 November 1930 (Von Hulsteyn), 22 January 1931 (R&H band), and others through 1934; Walla Walla Symphony Society Board Meeting Minutes, 15 October 1934; Conversation between Thomas R. Thompson and Dan Shultz, 3 November 1991; Dan Shultz, A Great Tradition, Music at Walla Walla College, 1892-1992, 42 and 73, 74; Shultz, A Dream Fulfilled, One Hundred Years of the Walla Walla Symphony, 2006, 38, 39; letter from Edna J. Smith Cubely, 7 November 1987 and interviews in 1989 (she taught with him in the 1930s); Interview with Melvin Johnson (a student of his in 1940), 1991; Walla Walla College, music department newsletter, Opus, Summer 1988, obituary and life sketch; Life sketch prepared by Harry Bennet, Jr. (a friend of Johnson's at the end of his life in Southern California) and Phyllis Thompson-McLafferty.

 

Victor Johnson

Loron Wade

In the following excerpt from his memoirs, Loron Wade, longtime professor of theology and chair for many years of the theology department at Montemorelos University, recalls his experience in studying music as a fifth grade student under Victor Johnson in 1948.

Attending San Diego Union Academy brought my brother Theodore and me into contact with one of the greatest people I have known. He was Professor Victor Johnson. I admired him then, and the passing years have added immeasurably to the luster of his image.

In retrospect, I have no idea how one person could have carried on the program he did. I wanted to learn to play the sax, so my folks talked to Mr. Johnson about this. Not a problem! He got us an old C-melody instrument for $50 and started giving me lessons. Theodore wanted to learn the violin. Fine! Our friend Kenneth Coville was taking cello, Kenís brother James was into violin and trombone, and almost everyone I knew was taking at least one instrument, all with Mr. Johnson.

He had a beginnersí band, a grade-school band, an academy band, two orchestras and two or three ensembles. Mr. Johnson not only rehearsed all of these groups and kept them on a busy schedule of performances, he gave private lessons to every player. I have no idea how many private lessons this man was teaching a week but it had to have been a staggering amount.

In 1986 I spoke with Julian Lobsien, a retired string teacher who told me he had been Johnsonís colleague at Walla Walla College. I knew that Johnson remained in Paradise Valley after we left and retired there, so his time at Walla Walla had to have been before that.

I was surprised: "You mean he was a college teacher and from there went to teaching academy and elementary school music?"

"Yes," said Lobsien, "he wanted to do that because he believed that the academy is where the action is. By the time young people get to college, most of them have already made the important decisions in life. The high school years are where you still have a chance to mold their thinking and influence them for eternity." And I would add that only in eternity will we know how many lives this man touched for good.

No Fireworks

One reason Victor Johnson achieved such tremendous results was that he was a strict disciplinarian. In fact, he often displayed a hot temper. I was more than once the object of his wrath, and so was nearly every one else he dealt with.

One day during band rehearsal, David Hansen, who was his best trumpet player, kept messing up a key part because he hadnít practiced. Mr. Johnson became furious, bawled him out in front of everyone and kicked him out of band. David quietly put his trumpet in its case and left. Rehearsal time was about over, so we all left pretty soon after that, and I caught up with David on the way home. "Pretty tough," I said to him. "Too bad youíre not going to be in band any more."

"Nah, Iíll still be in band. He needs me, and he knows it," said David. "His bark is a lot worse than his bite."

It was true, but still I thought his bark was pretty bad. In fact, one day toward the close of my fifth-grade year, I got to thinking about all the times Mr. Johnson had scolded me, and decided that enough was enough. I went to my next lesson determined that I wasnít going to cooperate, and I didnít. Every time he spoke to me I gave him a "smart alec" answer and did the opposite of whatever he asked me to do. Contrary to what I expected, there were no fireworks, no display of the famous temper. I had already decided that if he got mad and yelled at me, I didnít care. But it never happened. He just kept on trying to teach me, acting as if he didnít notice anything unusual. Under this onslaught of patience, I became more and more unnerved. By the time the lesson was over I was feeling lower than a toad. I put away my sax and left without looking at him.

The fifth-grade classroom was close to the opposite end of the row of classroom buildings, and to get there you had to go down a long covered walkway. Just before I reached the door of my classroom, I heard Mr. Johnson say, "Loron!"

I stopped and turned around. He had evidently followed and was standing about 50 feet behind. Now heís going to let me have it, I thought.

There was a little time of silence, and then he said: "Whatís the matter?"

Now I really felt miserable. The last thing I was prepared for was for him to be worried or to feel bad because of my behavior, but the expression on his face he seemed to show he was genuinely troubled, maybe even hurt. That was more than I could fathom and I didnít know how to deal with it.

"Whatís the matter?" he asked again.

Another silence, and then I opened the door and fled into the classroom.

After school that afternoon Mother waited a while and then she said: "Did you have a problem with Mr. Johnson today?"

I looked at her in surprise: "Did he call you?"

"Well, heís really concerned and was asking if I know what the problem might be."

So I told her what it was. She listened thoughtfully and then she said, "Do you think that was the way to deal with it?" She didnít have to say any more, because I knew for sure that it wasnít.

All week the matter was heavy on my mind. When I went for my next lesson, I waited until near the end of the period, and then said to him, "Iím sorry, Prof, about last week."

He said, "Well, Iíve been wondering what the problem was. You never acted that way before."

It was hard, and I couldnít look him in the eye, but in a timid voice I said "Itís just that I donít like it when you yell at us, and embarrass us in front of everyone."

Was it just my imagination, or was there really a kinder, gentler Mr. Johnson after that? Maybe there was. I wouldnít have believed it then, but my own experience in the classroom has proved that students really can influence their teachers, and that teachers are not immune to suggestions that will help them do better work, especially if they are offered in the right way. My second attempt to communicate with Mr. Johnson about the problem was not very good, but it sure was a lot better than the first.

Not long after this incident the school year was over, and right after that we moved away from Paradise Valley.

When I left the house to go to my last lesson, Mother handed me an envelope. "Here," she said, "this is a note I am sending to tell Prof. Johnson how much we appreciate his hard work and all he has done for you boys. And Iím enclosing a little gift for him, too." Just before she sealed the envelope, I could see the corner of a check. I donít know how much it was, but, knowing Mother, I think she probably gave him at least $100.

I was more than glad to take the envelope, because I really did admire the man, and he had helped me a lot. But still, I decided to make a little joke out of it. When the lesson was over I put on my most serious face and said to him, "Mr. Johnson, here is a note from my Mother. I think she is really mad at you." Again, there was that troubled expression on his face. Was this tough man really vulnerable?

Mr. Johnson read the note. He pulled off his glasses and looked at me: then he put them back on and read it again. "Oh my!," he said. "I thought you really meant it."

"Here! Hereís something for you," he said. And impulsively he reached for a book of instrumental music with piano accompaniment, wrote my name on it, added, "with appreciation and best wishes," and signed it with a flourish. Were those tears that made his eyes so shiny? I think they might have been.

Victor Johnson lived in Paradise Valley the rest of his life. Kenneth Coville loved him and visited him frequently. Kenneth was very good on the cello and they spent many hours playing together. Not long before Johnson died he gave his cello to Ken, and when Ken died in 2003, Reta [Kenís wife] gave the cello to my brother, Theodore. He has it as a precious keepsake from a great man.