He went from Albert Lea to Hawaii to Virginia Tech

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, March 8, 2009

A football injury led to many empty hours for an Albert Lea teenager in the mid-1960s. This downtime would be filled by the beginning of a lifetime of accomplishment in the performing arts.

David W. Johnson, a professor of theater arts at Virginia Tech University, recalls the inspiring leadership of two of his teachers at Albert Lea High School. Wally Kennedy taught English and humanities at the school and was one of the leaders of a pilot program designed to get students interested in the arts.

Kennedy guided Johnson, and many others, into the exciting challenges of life on the stage. An Arthur Miller play, “All My Sons,” was nearing production at the school and Johnson got the lead role.

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“It was considered cool to be in drama in Albert Lea,” Johnson said.

Teacher Curt Johnson collaborated with Kennedy in leading the arts and humanities program.

Graduating in 1964, Johnson earned his college degree from Valparaiso University in 1968 and joined the Peace Corps. A posting in Thailand was a life-changing experience with a unique and ancient culture.

“The Thais are an amazing and wonderful people. You go there thinking you’re going to save the people, but you wind up learning more from them than they do from you.”

Deciding to stay in warmer climes, Johnson earned his master’s degree at the University of Hawaii in the early 1970s. Leeward College, a branch of the University of Hawaii on the island of Oahu, was starting a theater program and needed strong leadership. Johnson accepted the challenge and started a Hawaiian-style theater program.

“Hotel Suite,” an original musical with a Polynesian theme, was produced by Johnson, who also contributed some of the lyrics for the songs. The musical’s long-lasting popularity began to stifle Johnson’s creative drive.

“The play was so popular that we had to do it every year. It was hard to move on to other things,” he said.

Moving on became a possibility for Johnson in 1988, when the former head of the theater program at the University of Hawaii took a similar position at Virginia Tech University. That opened a door for Johnson to go, too.

“I basically followed him out there,” he said.

Working within a strong and growing arts program at Virginia Tech has helped Johnson’s career flourish. The department has 100 undergraduate students and 20 to 30 graduate students currently pursuing degrees in various aspects of the fine arts. The university is slowly recovering from the tragic shooting spree of 2007, but painful memories linger.

“I lost a good friend, a young teacher of German who was a terrific person,” Johnson said.

Working on theater projects in foreign countries has been a special focus for Johnson for many years. Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union he was part of the Russian Drama Teaching Project in St. Petersburg.

Though fluent in the Thai, Chinese and Italian languages, he has never mastered Russian. “Russian beat me.”

Johnson conducts theater history tours in Rome for Virginia Tech students.

“It’s a recruiting tool for the university,” he said. “Rome is a fantastic place to visit and a great place to learn.”

He has also worked on an international theater project on the Greek island of Crete, which featured a reconstruction of an ancient Greek theater.

“We did five different plays in five different languages, including Bosnian,” he said.

The Tucino area of southern Switzerland and Calabria in southern Italy are other places where Johnson has worked on theater projects.

Living in a restored farmhouse, originally built in 1854, on the New River in Blacksburg, Va., Johnson lives a rich and varied life. He took up classical guitar at age 58.

“I have heard that music keeps the brain intact,” he said.

Asian martial arts, swimming and horseback riding are a continuation of the outdoor life he loved growing up in rural Hayward.

“I remember skating on the ice of Albert Lea Lake, near Big Island,” Johnson said.

Retirement is not part his future plans. He said he loves what he does: “I’ll teach until I die.”