Heads Up

Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to: 

  • connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
  • share ideas about learning and human development;
  • spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy. 

Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing. 

Michael Ulku-SteinerHead of School 


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He was a good man.

Today we learned of the passing of Robert “Bob” Johnston, Headmaster of Durham Academy from 1969 to 1977. Our hearts go out to his family. Our spirits lift up as we remember one of the most principled, purposeful, and generous educators in our school’s history.

I never met Bob Johnston, but his reputation and legacy make me proud to serve Durham Academy and eager to cover some ground with the baton I now carry.

Consider Bob’s immense impact in just eight years of Headmastering at Durham Academy. He was at the helm when DA launched our Upper School program, built our Ridge Road campus, graduated our first Senior class, established the Hill Center, and funded our first scholarships. Hundreds of Durham Academy graduates point to Bob as “that one special teacher” who changed their lives, the mentor whose standards of excellence made them stand a little taller on campus and work a little harder once they graduated. 

We will chronicle Bob’s legacy more fully in the summer issue of the Durham Academy Record. For now, I’d like to share a few windows into the character of an extraordinary leader and the pivotal role he played in the history of our school. The excerpts below, written by longtime DA English teacher Ki Caldwell, appeared in the 75th Anniversary issue of the Record.

Bob Johnston brought renewed vigor to the school, and he was a leader in community relations. One very important step he took immediately after arriving was making sure Durham Academy was not aligned with any of the segregationist schools that had cropped up in the 1960s. He felt strongly that Durham Academy should rise above the fray and work towards harmonious relationships throughout the community.

His special interest, indeed his passion, was finding ways to provide scholarships for children who could not attend Durham Academy otherwise. School funds, he felt, should be made available for scholarships across the board, especially where economic need might keep a bright, capable youngster from attending.

In 1976, Watts Hill, always the school’s benefactor, entered into a very significant partnership with Durham Academy.  Bob Johnston remembers the occasion vividly: Watts came by to talk to him about a specialized learning center that would address the needs of students who experience difficulties with the learning process. His idea was to establish and fund a program with close ties to Durham Academy, but with its own faculty and facilities. Within a few hours the two men had made headway on several levels. Bob recalls that he expressed to Watts his strong preference that the word “development” rather than “disability” be used for such a program. He felt then, as he does now, that all of us are developing throughout our lives, and that no one benefits from labels like “disability” or “disabled.”

That same spring Bob Johnston accepted the position of headmaster at the University School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had served Durham Academy for eight exciting years and he felt it was time to move on to new challenges and experiences. In his honor, the Board established The Robert Johnston Financial Aid Endowment Fund, a fitting tribute to the man who had made this vital concern a top priority.

Tellingly, today, Bob and his family invited mourners to offer donations, in lieu of flowers, to the Robert Johnston Financial Aid Endowment Fund.

The passage below, posted on Facebook, ends with words that capture the personality and impact of Bob Johnston – a man of integrity who changed the course of several schools and many thousand lives.

My dad, Robert D. Bob Johnston, passed away peacefully yesterday at the age of 83. To those who have sent such beautiful and moving comments since he entered hospice care last Friday, we are deeply grateful. All the expressions of admiration and appreciation for this great man, who impactfully led four schools as headmaster (Durham Academy, University School of Milwaukee, Charlotte Country Day School and Rabun Gap Nacoochee School), are much appreciated. My sister, brother and I, along with his seven grandchildren, miss him immensely, and are grateful that so many of you do too. Thank you. He felt your love in his dying days. He passed in contentment, the embodiment of the life well-lived. I miss you, Dad.

He was a good man.

Posted by mulkus on Tuesday January, 27, 2015

1 Comment:

Mr. J and I were lifelong friends. He basically celebrated every major milestone of my life through my getting married.  He prepared a tribute to my father which was read at his funeral. He, along with my Dad, taught me how to hit a softball and told me not to worry about my cap falling off of my head when I was running the bases. If I have one story about Bob Johnston, I have 100. So my heart is just broken, but I'm also grateful. I will miss him immensely.
Valerie Kennedy
from mulkus on 01/28/15 at 08:30AM

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