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Southlake Style

Jack D. Johnson - Founder of the Dragon Nation

Dec 04, 2012 10:03AM ● By tina

Jack D. Johnson - Founder of the Dragon Nation

By Tracy L. Southers, APR

Southlake Style's Community Impact Award Winner - 2012

Visionary. Disciplined. Dynamic. Honest. Fair.These are highly sought-after qualities in a leader, but rarely are they all found in one individual. Southlake is incredibly fortunate to have been served by one for 30 years. Described by these same attributes from people who know him professionally and personally, Jack D. Johnson is as legendary as the Dragon Nation he founded. As the first superintendent of Carroll Independent School District (CISD), a position he held for 28 years and by far the longest tenure in the district's history, he is credited with molding Carroll ISD into the nationally recognized district it is today. Johnson spent nearly his entire career at Carroll ISD and has a far-reaching list of accomplishments to show for it, which makes him undeniably worthy of being this year's recipient of Southlake Style’s Community Impact Award.

Southlake and Carroll ISD: Humble Beginnings

Today, it is hard to imagine Carroll ISD as anything but an athletic powerhouse, academic model of excellence, and state-of-the-art district. However, when Johnson joined the CarrolI Common School District in 1957 as a teacher-principal, this was not the case. Under the direction of the Tarrant County superintendent were six teachers (including Johnson) and one building to teach grades 1-8 in the rural community of approximately 200; students attended high school in Grapevine. When residents voted to separate from Tarrant County and become an independent district in 1959, Johnson was named superintendent, although he continued to wear many hats: teacher, principal, coach, part time custodian, lunchroom supervisor, and bus driver.

When asked why he decided to come to Southlake from Clarendon, Texas, where he taught and coached basketball for one year, Johnson simply says, “Because they offered me a job.”  Prior to that, he taught for three years in his hometown of Westminster, Texas, and served two years in the Army during the Korean War. 

A far cry from modern-day Southlake, the area was comprised of farmland and dirt roads, and the school had no air conditioning or indoor restrooms (these were located in a separate building outside).  But as one of the few public buildings in Southlake, it was the center of the community.  A gymnasium/auditorium added in 1958 provided a place to watch basketball games, hold PTA meetings, and stage student theater productions.

 Under Johnson's guidance, the fledgling district grew quickly by adding the ninth grade in 1959 and the remaining three high school grades beginning three years later in the fall of 1962.  According to Johnson, the beloved dragon mascot was born in 1964 when it was sketched by student Tony Eubanks, who is now an internationally-acclaimed painter of western art. 

A first significant feather in his cap came in 1965, when Carroll ISD became an accredited twelve-grade system by the Texas Education Agency.  The same year included the district’s first homecoming and graduating class of 24 students.  By 1969, Southlake’s population had increased to approximately 2,000 and school enrollment was more than 600.

From the beginning, Johnson's philosophy was, "Better schools make better communities."  Little did anyone know he was just getting started.

Demanding and Delivering Excellence

By all accounts, and there are many, Johnson's greatest passion was Carroll ISD. Even his wife of 57 years, Modean, admitted that while he had many loves in his life, Carroll ISD was first (as told by Jane Cousins, friend and former principal at Johnson Elementary). In return the students, teachers, parents and community willingly provided whatever he needed to succeed.

"When Mr. Johnson asked you to do something, you just did it because you knew it was the right thing and it would be remembered," said current Director of Facilities Chauncey Willingham, who Johnson hired as a teacher-coach in 1975.

These sentiments are echoed by Susan Anders, a teacher at Carroll ISD since 1971.

"He had very high expectations and demanded excellence of himself, teachers and students. You didn't want to disappoint him. He would tell us every year during convocation, 'If you are not going to give 100 percent, then call in and we'll get you a sub!'"

Johnson is well known for setting the bar high, but he is also remembered for recognizing achievement. Sending congratulatory notes to students who had appeared in the newspaper for a school-related event became a trademark.

Kathy (Kovarnik) Randall, a teacher at Johnson Elementary and 1982 graduate of Carroll ISD, still has the handwritten card and newspaper clipping Johnson sent to her for winning second place in a regional typing contest.

"My parents and I were so proud that he took the time to send this to me. He fostered the standard of excellence way back then, but he did it in a quiet, supportive way. As a student, you were not afraid of him."

Whether it was band, football, rodeo or drill team, Johnson was indeed supportive -- he rarely missed an event -- and competitive. He greatly enhanced the extracurricular activities and improved the athletic programs, but expected a return on investment in the form of wins. Coaches and students responded by consistently earning district, regional and state titles. 

"He wanted our school system to be the best in the state, regardless of our size. He would always tell us, 'We're not competing for second place,'" says Willingham. 

Despite his encouragement of student participation in athletics and extracurricular activities, Johnson made it clear that education was the priority.

"'I'm hiring you as a teacher, not a coach. Teaching comes first,' is what he told me when he offered me a job," recalls Willingham. "He believed an education was the most important thing as it would carry the kids further in life."

To this end, Johnson recruited the best teachers he could find and expanded the curriculum to include music, art, foreign languages, vocational education, and accelerated programs. Once again, his efforts were rewarded with consistently above-average scores on standardized tests, and Carroll High School students receiving the highest SAT scores in Northeast Tarrant County in 1983.

"I was thrilled when I got the chance to come to Carroll. It exemplified everything I wanted to be a part of and put an emphasis on academics, athletics andband," states Cousins, who served as principal at Johnson Elementary for 23 years. "Jack put this mindset into motion; the tradition started with him."

One of Johnson's greatest talents was the ability to look ahead. He saw early on the potential of the small community and knew growth was inevitable. More significantly, he knew how important a factor the school system would play into the development of Southlake. For this reason, he championed for citizen approval of a series of improvements through eight successful bond elections during 1959-1983 that resulted in four new schools; additional classrooms; computer labs; modernized cafeterias and gymnasiums; an athletic stadium with field house and concession stand; lighted baseball field; all-weather track; administration building; furniture and equipment; and funds for future site acquisitions.  

However, his legacy is best exemplified by the building at 1301 North Carroll Avenue that bears his name: Jack D. Johnson Elementary. School board trustees named the facility for Johnson in 1979 as a tribute to his then 22 years of service. Opened in 1981, it is a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and honors its namesake with a wall of photographs in the front hallway. Principal Lori Allison reports Johnson continued to visit the school after he retired, including most recently its annual open house and ribbon cutting ceremony for a sun-shade structure in May 2011.

Johnson's contributions extend well beyond Carroll ISD and Southlake. He believed it was important for school administrators and teachers to be involved in the community and joined several local organizations.  A member of the American Association of School Administrators since 1966 and serving as its membership chairman for the state of Texas, he was also active in many professional organizations. Realizing the importance of state legislation to education, he took a leadership role by serving as vice president and president of the Texas Association of School Administrators in the mid-1980s, which took him to Austin frequently to address issues such as teacher salaries, education financing, and collective bargaining. His most high-profile role came from serving as chairman of the Legislative Action Committee and Athletic Committee of the often controversial University Interscholastic League (UIL), which governs athletic, extracurricular and music contests between public schools throughout the state. Johnson went toe-to-toe with H. Ross Perot, who headed the Select Committee on Public Education appointed by former Governor Mark White in 1983, challenging his accusation that too much money and emphasis was being placed on extracurricular activities.

Whether in Southlake, the State Capitol or elsewhere, Johnson proudly represented Carroll ISD and never wavered from his beliefs. According to Anders, this is the best advice she ever received from him.

"He told me the most important thing is to set a course and stick to it. If you try to be what everyone wants, you'll be nothing," she says. "The district slogan today is Protect The Tradition, but Jack Johnsonisthe tradition. He made us proud to be a dragon way back then."

Once a Dragon, Always a Dragon

Although Johnson officially retired June 30, 1987, amidst a standing room only ceremony at Johnson Elementary, he by no means stopped being a part of Carroll ISD.  He could still be spotted at nearly every school function, near or far.  The walls of his home office in Southlake are lined with plaques, awards and framed photographs of his years at Carroll ISD.  But Johnson’s love for the students and community can best be seen in the several large scrapbooks he filled with newspaper articles, photos and other mementos.  Kept at Johnson Elementary, they are undoubtedly the best historical documentation of the district’s beginning.  When asked what he misses the most about his job, Johnson says, “the kids” without hesitation.

Always humble, Johnson never bragged about his accomplishments, but considered himself lucky and always gave credit to the students, teachers, school board and community. According to Cousins, he said, "One person is not responsible for the school district; it is a combination of everyone."

Thankfully, Johnson’s contributions are well recognized by the current leadership at Carroll ISD.

“When you think of those early foundational years in the Carroll school district, you cannot help but talk about the impact Jack Johnson had on Southlake and the surrounding area,” says Carroll ISD Superintendent David J. Faltys.  “Under his leadership, Carroll became known as one of the top school districts in the state of Texas.  His commitment to the children of this community is motivation for all of us as we Protect The Tradition he laid for future generations.”

Looking back over his extraordinary career at Carroll ISD, Johnson smiles and says, "I haven't worked since I left the farm. We were just having fun."

Tracy Southers, APR, is president of WordPlay, LLC, a public relations agency in Grapevine, Texas.  The company’s services include consulting, copywriting, marketing communications, publicity, social media and special event planning.  For more information, visit WordPlay Texas or call 817.756.1233.