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.”