R-E-A-D Ethel Johnson’s Legacy


Ethel is not a common name, even though St. Croix’s fast-talking economic development guy claims it was his maternal grandmother’s name and the middle name of one of his sisters. Internet sources say Ethel is Old English, meaning noble and strength, or noble maiden, old counsel, or sage.

Armed with that bit of information, the e.d. guy was surprised to hear from a business associate after a few years of radio silence. Through retirement, the colleague settled into a variety of new interests, including treasurer of the UW-River Falls branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). AAUW has the admirable mission of advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. Now that’s noble and strong.

The colleague did not expect the fast-talker to know Mrs. Ethel Louise Johnson, who passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 96. The story of Ethel unfolded. Raised in rural Wisconsin, she was committed to education throughout her entire life. By train, Ethel came to the River Falls Normal School, now UW-River Falls, with a reported ten cents in her possession. Ethel located housing where she could work in exchange for room and board. She earned a paid tuition as class Salutatorian and received her Associate Teaching Degree in 1942. Her first teaching job was at a one room school in Woodville, Wisconsin. Ethel continued her education and received her Bachelor of Science in Education, followed by a Masters in Reading Education – both from UW-River Falls. After marriage and three children, Ethel retired from a 43-year teaching career at the end of the 1991-92 school year. She was in her early 70s.

The last 33-years of Ethel’s teaching tenure were spent in the Hudson, Wisconsin school district. She developed many parts of the reading program in Hudson. It was a love of reading that the River Falls AAUW branch and friends of Ethel established a fund to honor her memory. Called the Ethel Johnson Literacy Grant, funding is available for projects to enhance the reading skills of St. Croix and Pierce County residents.

There is some urgency with the 2019 grant cycle. Applications are accepted September 15-October 25. A panel of AAUW members will review them, and awards are made by November 10th, based on merit of objectives and population served. Grants are capped at maximum of $400 and prospective applicants can learn more at .

Daughter-in-law Jean Johnson oversees the fund. She said, “Helping others was a priority for Ethel. Offering this grant through AAUW-River Falls is a fitting way to honor her memory.”

Forward-thinking employers in the St. Croix Valley continue to seek top level talent. This includes hiring associates with good reading, math, and soft (people) skills. Ethel Louise Johnson likely did not envision a connection between her love of education and reading with the technical aspects of advanced manufacturing. Thanks to her wisdom and friends at AAUW, Ethel Johnson and her namesake literacy program make big impacts to St. Croix’s economic future. Ethel Johnson was one strong, noble lady.