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Donation in memory of teacher who loved geography will allow pupils to see the world

When children in the William Street School study geography this year, they will have the whole world in their hands -- quite literally -- as a result of a $40,000 donation in memory of fourth-grade teacher Jane E. Johnson.

In tribute to her love of social studies, Johnson's husband, Arthur, earmarked the largest donation in the history of the Lancaster School District for geography supplies.

Throughout the year, sets of volleyball-sized plastic globes will travel from room to room, enabling children to see, up close, the locations of such places as Finland and Florida. Children will be able to write on the globes, then erase them for the next lesson.

New relief maps will grace the classrooms, and atlases will make lessons of latitude and longitude easier to understand, teachers say.

"This is something our teachers have been eyeballing for years, and (Assistant Superintendent for Business Edward) Myszka keeps telling me, 'No, it's too expensive,' " Principal Karen MacGamwell said.

According to those who knew her, Johnson loved social studies as much as she loved the hundreds of children who passed through her classroom over the years.

The daughter of two Finnish immigrants, the former Jane Vesa grew up on a farm in Trumansburg, near Ithaca. She was intimately familiar with baling hay -- but a stranger to the English language.

"She didn't know a word of English when she started kindergarten," said Kathy Fleahman, a fifth-grade teacher at William Street School.

That didn't last long. By adulthood, friends say, Johnson had shed any trace of an accent. Determined to become a teacher, she moved out of her parents' home at 18, take a waitressing job and paying her own way through Brockport State College, without her parents' help, according to Ann Lyons, a retired teacher.

"She worked very hard to reinvent herself, to invent herself into what she wanted to be: a teacher," Fleahman said.

Arthur Johnson' used a single word to explain his wife's success: "sisu." The word graced the vanity plates on her car for many years.

"It is a Finnish word that means intestinal fortitude, or guts," he explained. "Jane had sisu."

After landing a job in Lancaster, Jane Johnson taught at the Alys Drive School, later named John A. Sciole Elementary, for nearly three decades and at Central Avenue Elementary for two years.

She always taught fourth grade, and she always loved social studies the best, her friends say. That was apparent in her personal life, too.

When she and her husband weren't preparing gourmet meals for their friends or hitting balls on the golf course, they traveled around the world, including the land of her ancestors, Finland.

"I was the pilot, she was the navigator," said Arthur Johnson, a retired music teacher who worked in the Depew School District.

She retired in the mid-1990s, and the two moved from Amherst to a retirement community in Lady Lake, Fla. She died two years ago, at the age of 58.

The couple had two West Highland terriers, named Izza Jane and Bonnie Blue, but no children.

So in memory of his wife, Arthur Johnson decided to give the children of Lancaster a gift that would allow them to enjoy geography, as she did.

"She would like to see some geography in the school," he said.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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