BRIDGETOWN, NS - A Bridgetown area woman who waited more than 80 years to receive her high school diploma had her ‘bucket list’ wish granted June 28 at the Bridgetown Regional Community School – to a standing ovation.
Walking with a cane, and helped to the stage by her grandson, Hazel Johnson received her honourary school-leaving certificate to roaring applause from her 58 fellow graduates and the folks in a standing-room-only gymnasium.
Johnson’s life is the thing of movies.
The 99-year-old woman from the nearby community of Inglewood has travelled the world and learned several languages, but back in the early 1930s her father couldn’t afford the price of new textbooks and the smartest girl in her class in Grade 10 was told she couldn’t go back to school.
“We have a 99-year-old youth here tonight,” said Peter Cromwell, “She’s definitely young at heart. Always has been. Hazel Johnson. My mother (Edith Cromwell) was a year ahead of her in school, and in those days you paid for your own books. My aunt, as I said, was just behind my mother. She did well in school, came to Grade 10, the province changed the books.”
Peter Cromwell was a longtime elected member of the former Annapolis Valley Regional School Board and spoke to the crowd to give some context to Hazel Johnson’s life.
Teacher Matthew Marshall told the story of Hazel Izabelle Johnson, one of 10 children born to Mary Anne and Jesse Mitchell of Upper Granville on May 15, 1919.
“Hazel is a dedicated Christian and has served her community of Inglewood in many capacities,” said Marshall. “She was a Sunday school teacher for 35 years and served as treasurer for the Inglewood Baptist Church, a Nova Scotia Provincial Heritage Site, for over 40 years, during which time the ‘books were always balanced.’ She remains a deacon of the church to this day.”
Marshall said that Johnson has achieved many goals in her life, and crossed off several things on her bucket list, but when asked a few years ago if she had any regrets, her answer was “I wish I was able to graduate high school.”
Although it’s unthinkable today, the impediments to education for a young black woman in the 1930s were many. The price of a few books changed the entire course of Hazel Johnson’s life.
“Unfortunately, her father could not afford new books,” said Marshall. “He told her she would have to leave school. So, Grade 10 would be the end of her formal learning. She was devastated.”
Marshall said Hazel never stopped learning. She married the love of her life Samuel Johnson, a soldier, raised three sons who also became soldiers. The family moved to Germany in 1959, something Marshall described as quite a shock after living in rural Nova Scotia and growing your own vegetables.
“She learned to speak German and learned some of the languages of the other countries she travelled to just so she could be courteous,” Marshall said.
They came back to Canada in 1962 and eventually retired to Inglewood.
“Really, what it said to me when they brought it to me (Hazel’s story) was it shows resilience, and that’s the biggest thing that I’m noting in schools -- that we need to build resilience,” said BRCS principal Bill Reid. “Her life, and wanting to come back, it shows the importance of education, but also her personal resilience to run into a barrier but still continue on with such a successful life. That’s why I thought it would be such an iconic event for our kids to see what resilience is in life. That’s what we all need to build – that confidence, that lifelong learning. Resilience and lifelong learning.”
In her 100th year, Hazel is sharp and still learning, the glint of the young woman still in her eyes as she congratulated her fellow graduates and reiterated to story of the textbooks.
Marshall and Cromwell were on the stage with her for the presentation.
“She has lived a full life, she is loved by all who meet her,” said Marshall. “So you see, she did not let her life circumstances stop her education, she worked around it. On behalf of our graduates and staff here at BRCS we would like to now present Hazel Johnson with an honourary graduation certificate acknowledging a lifelong pursuit of education.”
About Hazel Johnson
-- She has eight grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and is a great-great-grandmother of a seven-month-old boy.
-- Some of her friends call her Ginger Snap because she is one of the most skilled pastry chefs you will ever meet.
-- She learned to sew and eventually began to teach sewing classes. She brought home ‘every ribbon in the Annapolis Valley Exhibition.’
-- She has travelled extensively, participated in Senior Games, and represented Nova Scotia at the Canadian Games where she competed in Scrabble tournaments.
-- Every day you will find her walking to the mailbox so she can do the crossword and sudoko puzzles in the Chronicle Herald. These are her daily brain exercises.
-- She studies the Bible daily and is an avid consumer of the news.