Ava Dale Johnson

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Obituary: Ava Dale Johnson taught English to Hmong refugees.

  • Article by: Tim Harlow
  • Star Tribune
  • March 31, 2014 - 5:32 AM

Refugees who settled in St. Paul had a friend in Ava Dale Johnson. She made it her life’s mission to help them get settled in their new country and teach them English.

Johnson translated Hmong folk tales into English and created most of the curriculum that she used to teach English to the first wave of Hmong immigrants and scores of other refugees who followed in the 1970s and ’80s. Her English as a Second Language books used at the International Institute of Minnesota later were used in classrooms across the nation.

“She was a marvelous teacher and committed to the refugees,” said Jane Graupman, executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota, which had one of the first English as a Second Language programs in the state. “She was empathetic and understood what people were going through. She was creative, gentle and a role model for other teachers. Her students loved her.”

Johnson died at her St. Paul home on March 17. She was 88.

Born in 1925, she was raised by a single mother in Oklahoma City where she liked to tap-dance on the sidewalk and roller skate. She was the first member of her family to go to college. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Phillips University in Enid, Okla., and later a master of arts degree from George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tenn., where she met her late husband, Charles. Together they spent six years as missionary teachers in the Belgian Congo. Their story is captured in the book “If the Rains Don’t Cleanse” written by their son, Ben Patrick Johnson, of Los Angeles.

From 1959 to 1964, the couple taught on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, then relocated to St. Paul where Charles took a job teaching French at Macalester College and Ava Dale a youth education position at Macalester Plymouth United Church where she staged musical-theater productions.

In 1975 the couple undertook a literacy project on behalf of Hmong refugees in St. Paul. Ava Dale took commonly known oral Hmong folk tales such as “The Woman and the Tiger” and created illustrated books to teach children and adults English. She also compiled scholarly books that included “Survival Hmong for Teachers” and “Myths, Legends and Folk Tale from the Hmong of Laos.”

“People take it for granted now, but in the 1980s there weren’t any materials,” Graupman said. “It was a new field in the country and Minnesota. She saw the need and wrote the curriculum. Some were learning to read and write for the first time.”

Her difficult childhood marked by poverty and class discrimination had a lot to do with her drive to help the less fortunate, said her son James, of St. Paul. “She got a vision of helping others while doing her early mission work. She always sensed when disadvantaged people were in need.”

Johnson also was a peace activist who supported nonviolent approaches to conflict and causes related to ecology, values that dovetailed with her Quaker roots. She enjoyed reading nonfiction and books on theological, political and sociological fare. But nothing mattered more than helping other people.

“She was totally interested in other people, their world and in their welfare,” said longtime friend Nancy Rotenberry. “She had a gentleness and was always asking what she could do to make things better for everyone.”

Johnson is also survived by another son, Lee Kaiser-Johnson, of Perrysburg, Ohio; three daughters, Susan Garrett, of San Anselmo, Calif.; Win Hiton of Portland, and Peg Nelson, of Owatonna, Minn., 18 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. June 14 in the Weyerhaeuser Chapel at Macalester College, 130 Macalester St., St. Paul.


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