Campus Profile: Sue Johnston

 

      If you’ve ever called Brenau, it is very likely that the voice that warmly answered belonged to the always chipper and welcoming Sue Johnston. Every morning, as I head to my first or second class of the day, it is nearly certain that Sue is going to greet me with, “Good morning, Kyle!” And, no matter how I was feeling beforehand, I can’t help but smile. The thought does seem to be a bit ludicrous, but if you have somehow gone more than a few weeks without at least meeting the jovial Sue Johnston, then please take a gander at this article that will most definitely leave you wanting to meet her!

 

We should probably start off with where you’re originally from.

I am from Des Moines, Iowa!

What was Des Moines life like?

It was great, I had a great childhood. I’m the oldest of three daughters, lived with my parents, had a lot of nice friends. I met Dave [my husband] when I was sixteen—he was fifteen. I went to Iowa State University.

What did you major in?

I majored in English when I was young. I went to school later—much later, in my forties—and graduated with a degree in Communications and Journalism, but that was at Reinhardt University.

Being from Iowa, how did you end up in Gainesville, Georgia?

Well, Dave transferred from his job. He’s a communication consultant and he transferred his job, first, from Minneapolis, then to Houston, then to Alpharetta, then we spent two years in England, came back and lived in Cumming, and we finally moved to Gainesville to be closer to Brenau.

What was England like?

Awesome. I would go back in a heartbeat. We made fabulous friends there, we travelled all over Western Europe. Our girls went to a British village school. So, we really tried to immerse ourselves in all things British. It was great.

Not being from Georgia, has life here ever seemed odd to you?

Not anymore, because we’ve lived so many places that we kind of tend to bloom where we are planted. I still wistfully, at times, think of Iowa. I really wistfully think of all places we’ve lived, but with two of our three kids here, it’s really the best place for us. It’s quiet and people are nice—it’s a good place to live.

Was it hard for you to move around so much?

Our first move was a little difficult, because that was when I was still in my career. I was a district manager for Waldenbooks and Borders for many years and travelled all over the United States. So, when we moved for the first time, to Minnesota, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to keep my job. But my wonderful boss rearranged a lot of districts so I could have my job. That was really the only big concerned we had about moving, but we enjoyed moving. For one thing, it was all paid for, because it was always corporate moves. So, it was just more of an adventure than a challenge. And I think that is why our children are all very outgoing, because they’ve moved around and made friends in new places—and I think that’s why they’re all open-minded as well.

You mentioned your career at Waldenbooks and Borders. Could you tell me more about that?

So, I was a district manager for Waldenbooks and I had usually, depending on where we lived, about for four or five bookstores that reported to me. I did all of the training, hiring, and buying of all of the books—I am a huge reader. Reading is my thing, books are my thing.

When did that chapter of your life end? Why?

I stopped working full-time when we moved to Houston, because we decided we were going to adopt Annie and I wanted to be at home [with her]. So, I would just work part-time here and there and do special projects for my Waldenbooks boss. But, for the most part, I stayed at home with the girls. I really didn’t go back to work, full-time, until I came to work here two years ago.

You mentioned Annie. What drove you to go for adopting a child and what was that process like?

When Dave’s sister—Sharon—and I were in high school, she babysat for a family that had a little girl from Korea. So, both of us had said that we were going to do that someday and we just kind of put that in the back our minds. Eventually, they did adopt their daughter, Cassidy, from Korea. Later, about five years later, we adopted Annie from Korea. Then, a year after that, we adopted Hope. So, it was always in the back of our minds to adopt from out of the country. That just fit our lives. We knew we wanted a family of more than one child, but we wanted to do it in a fun way. So, that was pretty cool.

How old were Annie and Hope when you adopted them? Do they remember life before you?

They were both about five months. So, we are the only parents they ever knew or remember. They never really lived with their biological parents. They lived in foster homes and an orphanage until we got them. So, we’re it! (laughs)

Did you ever have any weird situations or instances while raising Annie and Hope, because they didn’t look like you?

No, which might seem odd because of some of the places we have lived. Now, when we first moved to Georgia, we would get a few odd looks, because were the most noticeably non-white family in the community that we lived in. But as the years have gone on, and especially when we lived in England, we have always just fit in. The girls have known they were adopted since they were tiny and they’ve never thought it was weird. I think, because of that, their friends and other people don’t think it’s weird.

How old was Brian, your son, when you adopted Annie and Hope? What was that like for him?

Brian was fourteen when we got Annie and I think he thought it was a little humorous when we started talking about adopting. I think he thought that Mom and Dad just needed something else to do. Then, when we got Annie, he absolutely fell in love with Annie. So much so, that he was afraid, when we decided to adopt Hope, that he wouldn’t be able to love her as much as he loved Annie. So, he really wasn’t sure he wanted us to adopt again. Then, of course, we did and, of course, he loved her just as much he loved Annie. And they’re all really close now. Brian and Holly, his wife, have four little boys and the girls [Annie and Hope] are really close with their nephews.

What’s different about being a grandmother when compared to being a mother?

Well, you’re a lot more relaxed when they, the children, are naughty. First of all, you find it funny instead of maddening. I have to bite my tongue and not laugh (laughs) sometimes when the boys are naughty and Brian and Holly get after them. Grandchildren love you unconditionally all of the time. Whereas, your kids love you, but they get mad at you. So, that’s probably the biggest difference, but you worry about grandkids just like you worry about your kids.

What was the most frustrating thing about being a parent? Or what was the most difficult time?

We have been so lucky. I think the most difficult moment was when Brian and Holly’s third little boy was born. He was born with a heart issue and that was probably the most difficult 24 hours ever. He’s absolutely fine now. When Hope was little, she had juvenile epilepsy and would have seizures. That was hard, but she grew out of that. So, the kids have been healthy, they’ve been happy, they’ve done what they’re supposed to do, and they went to school. We’ve just been really blessed. I know that sounds like selective memory. I mean, we had the usual. You know girl children can knock heads with their moms a little bit, but we’re really close. I mean, you’ve seen how we bicker back and forth. We’re just really close. Our biggest challenges as a family have come more from the deaths of family members. Both of my parents, and my step-dad, died. But that’s probably it. I mean, we’ve been really lucky with jobs. I think we’ve made our own luck and we’ve been positive. We’re all really positive, except Annie (laughs). But what I mean by that is Annie is our leveler. If I’m over-the-top and innocent about things, Annie is more realistic. She’s the realist in the family and we need that.

You and your husband seem to be a happy couple. What about him complements you?

He is very calm. I am very easily excited and he is calm. I worry, I’m a perfectionist and he is…not (laughs). We met each other in high school and, after we started dating, we never broke up. Of course we fought, everybody does. I’m more easily agitated with him than he is with me. He just never gets ruffled. We just kind of grew up together and I think, because of that, we really grew up in the same way. Each of us has always wanted the best for the other. We always said that whoever had the best opportunity at the time, that was what we were going to do. That’s just always worked out for us and we’ve been married for 42 years and together for 45.

So, how did you end up at Brenau?

When Annie went to school here, we were pretty involved parents. We came to all of the events. One time, Valerie [Walston] asked me to sit on a panel. Then, we became friends and Jessica [Bowling] was on maternity and they needed someone to fill in a few hours a day. So, I came to work on the 25th of August, 2014 and I never left. They needed somebody to just do stuff and I told them to do it. I never intended to stay. I used to travel to with Dave, because of his work, a lot. But I was kind of just ready for something else and I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back to school or go back to work. I had a couple of job offers, but none of them really appealed to me. Then, I came here one day and her I am. It’s really the students, they are what makes me come to work. It’s just perfect for me right now. If it wasn’t for the people who I work with and the students that come in here every day, I could leave this job this afternoon. I mean, it’s just a phone, but it’s not—its all of you. I’ll probably stay here until Dave decides that he doesn’t want to work. Then we’ll travel and go hang with the grandkids.

In what ways, if at all, has Brenau changed you?

It’s kept me young. I always feel, rightly or wrongly, like I have a younger mindset than most people my age, but I think Brenau has made that even more the case. I think that’s because I’m around young people from so many different backgrounds. I mean, we have students from virtually every different background culturally, educationally, economically, and every demographic you can think of. That has enhanced my belief that we are all the same. All people are the same. There is something good in virtually everybody and there is something you can learn from everybody. It’s made me realize that I shouldn’t assume that everybody has had the same kind of opportunities and education. Everyone has had different opportunities and different family support. Which has just reinforced to me even more that this is a university filled with strong people and I am motivated by our students every day. I’ll see something and I’ll think, “Wow, that person is 18 years old and he/she just said the most profound thing.” I’m just amazed by the insight of our students. And I am glad the men are here as well. I think that our male population hasn’t just added to the diversity, but just to the overall fun at the university.

Your daughter, Hope, is about to get married and other people on campus are in relationships and getting engaged. What advice would you want to give to young couples?

That if you decide to get married, that it is forever. I mean, there are extenuating circumstances of course. In this world, people walk away from relationships way too easily. Especially when young people get married, it is hard. You have to change and have to adapt. You come from different backgrounds and when it comes to parenting, you may parent differently. You have to just say, “No matter what we go through, we’re going to go through it together and come out on the other side together.” There will be hard times, I alluded to that when I talked about my parents dying. When my dad died, I was young, I was twenty-six. I was really close to my dad and I was really sad for a long time. But Dave was there and I know I wasn’t easy to live with. When his parents got divorced, he went through a tough time. He was really angry and he is not an angry person ever. So, that was really hard, but you just have move through those things. It is so much easier to move through things together and it’s also really expensive to get divorced (laughs)—I’m only kidding. But seriously, looking backward to friends and family who got divorced, I just don’t think it is ever easier to get divorced. Unless, of course, it is a hideous situation. Be friends, be friends with your spouse above all, because all the other mushy junk goes away. Life gets in the way of the mushy stuff, but it doesn’t get in the way of friendship. So, be friends with whoever you’re going to marry.

What piece of advice would you give to expecting or new parents?

Your child is his/her own person. Your child is not a miniature you. Don’t live through your child. Enjoy your child and love your child, but let your child be who they are. And every parent of the world is guilty of trying to live through their kids—every parent. But try not to do it too much. (laughs) Annie would laugh and go, “Oh my gosh, you’re such a helicopter mom.” I look at Brian and Holly whose son is gay and he just figured that out, because he’s just thirteen. But he knows. He’s a wise kid. Brian and Holly, it never occurred to them to question how he was feeling or to try to change him. I just think that is how parents should be. They have four kids who are completely different. We, Dave and I, have three kids who are completely different, but they’re all just so cool and unique. They aren’t just little “Dave’s” and little “Sue’s”. Well, Hope is a little “Sue” and everybody would probably tell you that Brian is a little “Sue” (laughs). You know, they should be their own person.

How do you want to be remembered?

As someone who was kind to everyone. That’s my thing. Henry James: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” That is it, I don’t care about anything else—that’s it.

You grew up in the 60’s and 70’s; how is life different now?

Oh gosh, it’s so different. I think the media, social media in particular, and communication in general has changed so much about how people interact. When I was a kid, we would talk on the phone with our friends, but we couldn’t text or Facebook. So, we would ride our bikes and just talk. I think that I what has really changed. People don’t talk face-to-face like they used to. Even though I love social media and opens up the channels that it does, but I think it has lessened real communication. I think it has also increased the stress level. There is not a day that goes by that someone doesn’t come into my office and tell me how tired and stressed they are. I didn’t even know what stress was when I was a teenager. Not that we weren’t stressed, but not in the same way. They worry a lot more. We worried about big things like Vietnam or when Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers were assassinated. But we weren’t really stressed on a daily level like the kids are today. I think every generation thinks that they lived in a simpler time, but I think we really did grow up in a simpler time, sadly.

I don’t want you to get political, but the election is over and people are still upset about it. There’s a lot of raw emotion out there right now. What is your advice?

I think we need to take our cues from President Obama and Donald Trump. They met for an hour and a half and it sounds like it’s going to be a very smooth transition. I think that we need to maintain hope. I’m old enough to know, and I’ve been through enough elections to know, that everything is a part of a cycle. In any election, half the people are thrilled and the other half are not. America has been here a long time and we’re not going to go away. Too many friendships and relationships have gone astray because of this election—I think that’s senseless and silly. Politics are important, but relationships are more important. They were more important before the election and they are just as important now that it’s over. We, as Americans, need to press forward doing all that we can for all of those around us who need help. We are going to be fine, we will be fine. I don’t want to make a political statement. I don’t want to be any more divisive. I just think that we all can work together for the American good. I think that we can find ways to do that within the system, I don’t think we have to work against the system. I just think we need to give time a chance. I still really don’t know what to say about it. I’m so surprised by the outcome that I don’t really know how I feel.

Any final thoughts?

Look for the good in every day and it is out there. The sun came up on Wednesday morning and it will continue to come up. 

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