2019 Founders' Day Ceremony: Retired Science Teacher Sam Johnson inducted into Hall of Fame

Retired Science Teacher Sam Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday, September 20, 2019, during the Founders’ Day ceremony. Below are highlights from the ceremony.

Founders' Day honoree Sam Johnson with his wife.

Mr. Aaron Schubach: Good morning and welcome to our 2019 Founders’ Day celebration. I’m Aaron Schubach, the Head of CSS.

This tradition, one of my favorite annual events, began in 2009. This ceremony and alumni reunion that is held this weekend gives us a chance to reflect on who we are as an institution, to honor and thank those who shaped our school, and to connect with the graduates who were formed by the people and programs of CSS.

In so doing, we honor our core values of independent thought, leadership, ingenuity, and personal integrity. We also honor education itself and all that it entails - excellence and challenges, pursuits and struggles - and we celebrate friends, mentors, and colleagues. We celebrate the school’s rich history, bright future, and its enduring mission of progressive education.

Please welcome the Vocal Ensemble under the direction of Vocal Music Teacher, Deanna Kirkham, to sing Homeward Bound.

Fifth graders joined the Vocal Ensemble on stage to sing the school’s alma mater, composed by today’s honoree, Mr. Sam Johnson.

Vocal Ensemble and 5th graders sing together.

Mr. Schubach: This year’s honoree, Mr. Sam Johnson, retired in 2016 after a purposeful 25-year career that shaped this institution and impacted the lives of many students.

As someone who worked for and with Sam during an 11-year timeframe, it is particularly meaningful to me to speak about him today. I first met Sam in 1996, when he was the Director of the Upper School, during my job interview to be a history department and outdoor education intern at CSS.

This is a true story: when Sam and Head of School Mary Flemke asked me about my experience working with children, I couldn’t think of anything, so mentioned that I had been a child in the recent past.

During the course of the time I worked with Sam, I learned many things: how to design and teach a rigorous college-prep class; how to put students in the center of the experience; how to hold students and colleagues accountable to high standards; and, most importantly, how to have some fun.

I couldn’t learn how to do all the things that Sam knows how to do because he knows so many things. Sam is a writer of prose and poetry, a singer/songwriter (with an LP studio album), a mathematician, a chemist, a geologist, a biologist, and a lepidopterist.

Sam’s knowledge of and love for science is absolutely rooted in his knowledge and love of the natural world in general, Colorado’s Front Range specifically, and the beautiful area surrounding the CSS campus in particular. Sam was raised on Star Ranch (when it was a ranch) a few minutes from our campus, and Sam’s curiosity was fed by the mountains and hills of this beautiful environment. It is a profound thing to grow up connected to nature, as Sam did and to have the curiosity and intellect to understand the natural world at a high level.

I think of this sense of place when I sing the line of our school song: prairies east and mountain west. In our current age when students ramble and explore far less than they should, Sam’s biology and geology classes and ECSs grounded CSS students in the flora, fauna and geology of their home - the front range of Colorado, and the world.

Upon his arrival in 1991, Sam’s theories of education — blended with and re-energized this school’s founding principles. Here he joined forces with talents like Andy and Lynn Handford, fellow biologists and scientists Ann Carson and Steve Kercher, a young star teacher like Greg Johnson, and pillars of the institution like Ava Heinrichsdorff, to name only a few of the stellar teachers in the school’s history. Sam’s arrival 29 years after the school’s founding took CSS to an entirely new level.

Not just an academic leader, Sam applied his intellect, knack for people, and high moral compass to administrative roles. He led the Upper School for years and leaned into hard conversations with students, faculty and parents, not because he wanted to be authoritarian, but because wanted to serve the school and saw that as a clear way he applies his talents to make the students and the school work better. Blessed with a witty, observational sense of humor, Sam’s jokes got many faculty through those 7:00 a.m. meetings.

Experience-Centered Seminars are the Upper School’s signature program, and Sam has done as much or more than any single person in the school’s history to articulate and design the standards that each and every Experience-Centered Seminar could and should meet: ECSs are centered around essential questions; student should do the heavy lifting intellectually; every student must pull on the oars (there are no passengers); and perhaps most importantly, students and teachers need to go to the foot of the master, and particular locales to learn from and be changed by those expert and authentic voices and places.

Like the mythical Prometheus, he and Mr. Wolfe brought fire to campus in the way of the first Great Iron Pour Experience-Centered Seminar. From field biology on the Amazon, to the Writers Gym, Sam’s ECSs reached farther than the program had ever gone before.

Sam, for these reasons amongst many others, it is it is my pleasure to welcome you to the stage to be inducted into the CSS Hall of Fame as the 2019 Founders’ Day Honoree.

Mr. Schubach presented the award to Mr. Johnson, who received a standing ovation.

Mr. Schubach presenting the award to Sam Johnson.

Mr. Johnson: This is a good day. When I came back to Colorado Springs in 1990, after fifteen years in Austin and Chicago, I had no idea. I thought I might work in District 2, Harrison or Widefield, but they said, “You don’t have a certificate.” I said I had some pretty interesting experience in teaching, both in high schools and colleges, but they said, “You don’t have a certificate.”

I thought that was a bad day, but I had no idea. At that point, I became reacquainted with Karen Huff, who was at the time the Head of Children’s School, and after talking to her, she called the new Head of School, Dr. Mary Flemke, and told her I was the man for the part-time chemistry and math teacher. Dr. Mary took Karen’s advice and hired me. She had no idea what kind of match she had made.

Experiential education was baked into me, and here was a school that seemed to understand the value of it. To learn something deeply, one must engage as many senses and skills as possible. One must read it, hear it, see it, touch it, do it, meditate on having done it, and say it. If you can smell it and taste it, even better. To me, all subjects were like music and fine arts. You can’t know to paint by looking at Rembrandts or watching Bob Ross do it. You can’t learn the cello by listening to Yoyo Ma play it.

So from day one, I was enchanted by this little K-12 school, which was much like Cheyenne School when I was a little boy. It was K-12 on one campus, with a principal, Lloyd Shaw, who took kids into the Nature Preserve a few times every year to acquaint them with the trees and wildflowers and birds. And here, only blocks from my alma mater, was a reincarnation of the old Cheyenne, on steroids.

Founders' Day honoree Sam Johnson after receiving his award.

Mickey Landry, the best Head of School in all of America — with the obvious exception of our current head, Aaron Schubach — came to this school scratching his head, saying, “This is the best example of a K-12 school in the country, mainly because you use experiential education, but you don’t even know how you do it. You are wildly successful, and you don’t know how to express how you do it.” So he gave me the job of codifying it, writing it out, documenting the whole program of experiential education from the first classroom overnight to the seniors on ECSs in South Africa.

I always placed a high value on interdisciplinary pursuits. If you could make a great lesson in biology, could you make it better by gardening and reading poetry about it? If there is a terrific physics lesson, might it still be better if rhythm and noise-makers are involved? Or, perhaps the best example, if you can make a poignant piece of art, could you make it in wax, put a ceramic shell on it, melt the wax out in a homemade kiln, invest it in sand, learn the history of the discovery and use of iron, learn to melt iron in a homemade furnace with Coke, and pour your sculpture in blazing, molten metal? It’s 3D art, materials sciences, math, and history rolled into a totally fun experience.

So my 25 years at this school were the best of my life. I could never imagine a better job, a better place to go to work every day. And I did it with great pride and no regrets. I retired in 2016 to my quiet home with my wonderful wife, Katie, and a few scattered projects to keep me busy. But retirement was hard, and it was lonely. And then one day three years later, I got a call from Aaron Schubach. I had no idea.

There is no other institution whose Hall of Fame I would treasure more being a part of than CSS. To join the ranks of Al Adams, Todd Horn, Ava Heinrichsdorf, Lesley King, Andy Handford, Eleanor Walters, and Hela Robran. Gosh. Now I can die a satisfied man. Thank you more than I can say.

Mr. Schubach: We will have a short video today about Sam’s life in science and his impact on students. I’d like to thank our Science Department Chair, Mr. Eric Gaylord, for his thoughtful contributions to this effort.

See video

Mr. Schubach: For many years, Sam composed and delivered senior tributes for the entire senior class. Delivered with wit, each student felt known, loved and celebrated. Please welcome Mr. Greg Johnson, a 30-plus year teacher in Science and Mathematics, for a senior tribute to Sam.

Mr. Greg Johnson: A while back, Mr. Schubach came to me and asked if I would be willing to say a few words about my colleague of 25 years, Sam Johnson. I agreed because I thought it would be the perfect time to publicly air my list of grievances. When I showed this (a large book) to Mr. Schubach, he impatiently told me when someone is inducted into the Hall of Fame, you generally want to compliment them. I went home and thought about it for four or five days and came up with … one, which I’d like to share with you.

Greg Johnson's tribute to Sam Johnson.

About 20 years ago, I gave this compliment to Sam: “I like your shoes. Can I have them?” He said no, so I added this to the book of grievances, right here on page 973, paragraph 6. Mr. Schubach also mentioned that I should know my audience. I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I wrote the compliment about his shoes in crayon, thinking I might have to show it to Sam.

OK, here’s the real tribute. What a pleasure to know your office-mate of 25 years has a vast repository of knowledge, available to anyone, free for the taking with simple questions. Sam has all the attributes of a great teacher and a great scientist. His explanatory manner is captivating and thorough. Most of all, he is curious, endowed with an insatiable hunger for scholarship, learning, and teaching. His intellectual motivation has always been the simple pleasure of discovery. Sam’s ability to impart the pleasure of discovery among his students has always been a wonder to behold, whether in biology, chemistry, or geology classes.

It’s been said that if you aspire to know everything about something, you’ll know everything. Sam would be the first to admit he doesn’t know everything, but his academic life has been dedicated to knowing as much as he can about moths. In the process of studying moths, he has learned a heck of a lot about the natural world, coming as close as anyone to knowing everything about moths. Sam joyfully shared this knowledge with students over decades. I know because I count myself as one of his students. His patience, persistence, and creativity in the classroom is matched only by his humility. As a citizen, as well as a teacher, Sam has always held true to the ideal of open-mindedness, always aware of and protecting against bias. Finally, without question, each and every one of his colleagues would attest to his peerless integrity. Well done, Sam!

Mr. Schubach: To round out today’s ceremony, please welcome our final performance on the morning. Estin N. and “young” Sam Johnson, two members of the Class of 2020, will lead us in the Moth Song.

Students Sam J. and Estin N., both of the Class of 2020, perform the Moth Song.

Mr. Schubach: Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for your service to The Colorado Springs School, to your students, to science itself, for the Moth song, and for the school’s beautiful alma mater. We know that you and our graduates will return to CSS - we hope often.

A few quick words of thanks:

  • Thank you to members of the Board of Trustees for their stewardship of this fine school.
  • Thank you to the incomparable Jessica James, our Director of Advancement and Communications, and her team for telling our story.
  • Thank you for joining us to celebrate the past, present, and future of our fine school and for celebrating our honorees.

Find Mr. Sam Johnson's biography here.

Read a profile on Mr. Sam Johnson.