Obituary: Johnny Bland, longtime science teacher at Murray Junior High

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 26, 2014 - 8:50 PM
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Johnny Bland

Any mid­dle-school teach­er will tell you that it’s difficult to make much of an impression on students during the hormonal years, let alone teach them about geology and the periodic table of elements.

It helped that Johnny Bland, who earned a Ph.D. in botany from the University of Minnesota in 1978, was a born storyteller gifted with humor and charm.

Few in­struc­tors with doc­tor­ates teach at the junior-high level even today, but Bland told fel­low sci­ence teach­er Art Payne of St. Paul that teach­ing juni­or high at Murray in St. Paul was “the best job I ever had.”

Bland is list­ed in “Who’s Who A­mong America’s Teach­ers” in 1992, 1996 and 2002, and he re­ceived awards from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Dur­ing a ca­reer in teach­ing that spanned his en­tire a­dult life, Bland nev­er sought out an ad­min­is­tra­tive job for more mon­ey.

“He want­ed to per­son­al­ly af­fect in­di­vidu­als,” said his daugh­ter Carla, of Minneapolis. “His own sev­enth-grade sci­ence teach­er in­spired him.”

Payne, who re­tired two years af­ter Bland did in 2005, and Bland put to­gether a sci­ence mag­net program at Murray — now Murray Middle School — in the 1980s that was a big draw for stu­dents through­out the Twin Cities.

“The program drew from 25 dif­fer­ent el­e­men­ta­ry schools,” Payne said. “When par­ents found out that their kids were so enamored of a sci­ence teach­er, they be­came his staunch­est sup­port­ers.”

Jon­a­than Schu­mach­er of St. Paul, who had a daugh­ter in Bland’s class, said Bland was re­spon­sible for Murray’s rep­u­ta­tion as a sci­ence mag­net. “Murray has al­ways turned out strong sci­ence stu­dents — many of whom be­came sci­en­tists,” he said.

Bland’s sense of hu­mor and grand­father­ly ap­proach kept stu­dents en­ter­tained but on task. Students would quote his Bland-isms, which were of­ten phrases he learn­ed in the South grow­ing up, such as “Do you think I just fell off the tur­nip truck?” when a mid­dle-school­er gave a less-than-truth­ful re­sponse.

He was no less of a jokester with his col­leagues, in­clud­ing the times he would walk into Payne’s class­room dur­ing a lec­ture and start sing­ing or cas­ual­ly re­mark, “It’s so quiet in here you can hear a mouse peeing on cot­ton” — one of Payne’s favorites.

On a schol­ar­ly level, Bland was no vic­tim of grade in­fla­tion, de­spite the love of his stu­dents. He tweaked the old Smith Barney investment slo­gan to say: “We make grades the old-fash­ioned way. We earn them.”

Form­er stu­dent Otto Gockman of St. Paul, himself a bot­a­nist, de­scribed Bland as “one of the few teach­ers that I still feel a con­nec­tion to. He had a way of giv­ing you friend­ly guff to get you back on task.”

As a fa­ther and a teach­er, Bland had a knack for see­ing a per­son’s po­ten­tial and back­ing it up with in­vest­ment.

When Carla first picked up a nee­dle and thread, Bland wast­ed no time pur­chas­ing a sew­ing ma­chine for her. “He was the first one to try it out, too. He want­ed to share the ex­peri­ence with me,” she said.

Like­wise, when her broth­er, Michael, showed an in­ter­est in drums, he bought him a drum set, she said. (Michael Bland, of Minneapolis, was a drum­mer with Prince dur­ing the New Pow­er Gen­er­a­tion era and is now a ses­sion mu­si­cian.)

Bland himself played or­gan and pi­an­o. He had a mu­sic school in Minneapolis called l’Ecole Pe­tit de Musique and worked with more than 10 small church­es to start their mu­sic programs.

“He’d help with the choir or play the or­gan or pi­an­o,” Carla said. “He was no­to­ri­ous for help­ing out.”

Born Aug. 30, 1935, in Chunky, Mis­s., he found his first teach­ing job in Bogalusa, La., in 1957, leav­ing for Minneapolis with his wife, Irma, in 1968.

In ad­di­tion to his wife, Irma, daugh­ter Carla and son Michael, he is sur­vived by two oth­er daugh­ters, San­dra Buck­ner and Syb­il Pick­ford; two bro­thers, Noah and Arcell; and four grand­child­ren.

Services have been held.

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