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Hastings history teacher who loves to tell stories to retire

May 18, 2019
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Spencer Johnson, teaches a seventh-grade geography class at Hastings Middle School in Hastings, Minn. on April 30, 2019. Johnson has been teaching for 39 years and will retire at the end of the school year. (Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP)
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Spencer Johnson, teaches a seventh-grade geography class at Hastings Middle School in Hastings, Minn. on April 30, 2019. Johnson has been teaching for 39 years and will retire at the end of the school year. (Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP)

HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) — Spencer Johnson’s stories are like train cars — colorful, interesting, constantly moving and somehow all connected.

The 61-year-old history teacher sat in the cafeteria of Hastings Middle School on a recent Tuesday and talked about his 39 years of telling stories to students.

He’ll be retiring at the end of the school year, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported.

Partway through a yarn about being an extra in “Glory,” the 1989 movie starring Denzel Washington about an all-black Civil War regiment, he’s reminded of a trip to Belgium where he re-enacted the Battle of Waterloo, connecting the two with his oft-cited phrase, “and my story for that is . . . ”

“No matter what it is, he knows something about it,” said Nancy Bauer, who often assisted in his eighth-grade class.

Johnson, who for 30 years also worked summers as a historical interpreter at Fort Snelling, said he’s always been a fan of history, especially the American Civil War era. He remembers touring Gettysburg on a family trip and painting plastic army men gray and blue for a school history project.

“I have a lot of knowledge on lots of different things,” he said. “I like to go to battlefields on vacation.”

He’s part of two Civil War groups, infantry and artillery. He recently donned his Union blue uniform for a re-enactment in Spring Valley. He’s also played a French Voyageur fur trader, camping on the shore of Lake Superior.

In 2016, he was recognized as the Hastings Educator of the Year by the Hastings Minnesota Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau.

Throughout his tenure, his classroom on the second floor has slowly become a museum of sorts with mementos tacked to nearly every empty space on the wall. Models of clipper ships hang from the ceiling, an American flag covers a window, and a painting of Abraham Lincoln hangs over a desk stacked with papers.

As the end of the school year draws near, Johnson slowly has been dismantling his museum and reminiscing about his years as a history teacher and the several generations of children who have passed through his classroom.

“Whose mom or dad had me for school?” he asked his middle schoolers. Out of a class of 28, seven hands shoot up.

He knows of several who became history teachers and one who works at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Johnson said he’s never hesitated to expose his students to breaking news and to use it to teach the bigger picture.

He turned on the news in class during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Challenger tragedy and the start of the Iraq War.

“To see that stuff live, you have an emotion tied to it. You remember it,” he said.

His experience at Fort Snelling helped him perfect his hands-on style of teaching.

“He lives it, and he brings it into the classroom,” said Josef Haas, assistant principal at the school. “He does whatever he can to get the students to learn.”

For Johnson, that has meant dressing up in period costumes, demonstrating how to fire a musket and a cannon, holding scavenger hunts at historic cemeteries, having fashion shows where students dress up as soldiers, and playing a modern version of Oregon Trail.

“The kids still love that game,” he said.

Johnson loves teaching, but when his two grown children moved to the Pacific Northwest to become foresters, he began to think about retiring. He said he made his decision a year ago and plans to spend his retirement doing more re-enactments, fishing, hunting, and visiting his grandchildren.

But that doesn’t mean he’ll stop telling stories.

“Several of my friends have said ‘Well, you’re not going to stop teaching, you’re just going to not teach in a school anymore,’” he said. “That was a really nice sentiment.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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