SMHS Principal Retires With Mountains of Memories

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If Mary Johnson is reading this story, she is likely doing so while enjoying the last of her days in the San Marino High School principal’s office, an office that serves almost as a personal dome inside the world of a modern high school.
Roomy and decorated, the office, with its tinted windows and situated essentially at the crossroads for the campus’ various buildings, has allowed Johnson the ability to observe any of the 1,200 or so students under her watch daily for the past three years. A door even allows quick access into that world, whether to begin an impulsive journey or to acquiesce to the demands of students who pressed their face to the window to peer through the tinting.
“When I’m having a particularly bad day or facing a difficult task, all I have to do is look up,” Johnson said. “It sort of rights my ship and restores my perspective.”
She was, of course, reflecting on past experiences and events. On Saturday, the next fiscal year for San Marino Unified School District will begin, as will Johnson’s official retirement that caps off a 13-year career at SMHS. At the time of this interview, in which summer school already was well underway, Johnson said the countdown had begun to hit her.
“It’s starting to,” she said. “People are coming in to say goodbye. I’m more aware than ever how many great people we have in our educational community.”
Johnson’s introduction to the field of education was not straightforward. Born in Santa Barbara, Johnson and her family relocated to Las Vegas when she was 4. She graduated from Bishop Gorman High School in 1970.
She relocated to Southern California to study French at UC Irvine, but admitted, in retrospect, that likely wasn’t the best move for her. She didn’t finish and instead spent the next eight years working in the hotel industry in the Bay Area.
“There were half-a-million people in Nevada when I left,” she said, reflecting on leaving her relatively small community for the metropolis of SoCal. “I think it was an error on my part. I lost all of my home community support.”
Eventually, the fire of education in her had grown enough that she left the hotel career and returned to school, studying at Cal State East Bay (which was known at the time as Cal State Hayward).
“I needed to do something that meant something, every single day,” she explained.
That portion of her career began in 1987, when Johnson was an 8th-grade teacher at nearby San Gabriel Mission High School. From there, she went to LaSalle High School in Pasadena in 1991, where she taught English and religious studies.
At LaSalle, Johnson eventually became the admissions director and later a guidance counselor. From there, she became director of guidance, which she said was something of a calling to her, based on her admitted missteps in her first collegiate jaunt.
“It was a terrible match for me,” she said of UC Irvine, “which is what I think made me a more sensitive college counselor. It’s not about a ranking. It’s not about where your parents went to school. It’s about the right match, where you will go and thrive.”
Johnson stayed at LaSalle for a decade before taking a guidance counselor job at Beverly Hills High School in 2001. That gig, however, only lasted a couple of years.
“I probably would have stayed there for the rest of my career,” she admitted. “I had a great principal, a great boss. But I had gotten married and the commute [from Diamond Bar] was intolerable.”
Johnson took around a year off in 2003 and began volunteering at Stepping Stones to Learning in San Marino, lending her guidance expertise to the center. There, she began to meet and befriend San Marino’s parents, educators and even members of the board of education.
At some point, she was asked to meet Loren Kleinrock, the SMHS principal at the time who was looking to fill an assistant principal position.
“I thought I was just meeting him at the time,” Johnson said, “but I walked away with a job.”
Johnson would take over for Kleinrock in 2014, presiding over the sole high school in a small school district routinely ranked among the best in the state. The transition turned out to be smooth, even with the changes in workload and style.
“I think the timing was really good,” she said. “I had spent a lot of years working with teachers, working with counselors, working on the master schedule. It just seemed so natural.
“Work just doesn’t stop at 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Johnson added. “It’s not a bad thing. It’s just very different.”
Superintendent Alex Cherniss took on his role at the same time Johnson took the helm at SMHS, but he said her prior experience in the district made his transition that much easier.
“I learned a great deal from her about the district and so much about the history and tradition of San Marino,” he said.
Cherniss lauded Johnson for ushering in a variety of programs and developments at SMHS during her tenure and pointed out her efforts, as a former guidance counselor, to help students branch out extensively in their searches for higher education institutions.
“She really was an integral part of what we do at the high school,” he said. “She brought that past experience to her role as principal and, in San Marino, that’s really important. She had that background and it served her well in that role.”
Asked to pick a highlight, Johnson immediately brought up the SMHS Titans’ state football championship in 2015.
“That was extraordinary and really a lot of fun,” she said. “All the way up to Sacramento, that just doesn’t happen very often for a school our size.”
Johnson said she tried not to focus on her feelings too much while ushering out her final SMHS graduating class this month. The day was, after all, about them.
“As each face came up for his or her diploma, I was just so proud of them,” she said. “I wasn’t focused on my feelings then. I was more focused on their emotions.”
For the immediate future, Johnson will relocate to San Luis Obispo, where she and her husband have recently finished building a home. After taking a year or so off to regroup, Johnson said she has eyes on volunteerism, most likely in the San Gabriel Valley. She mentioned the Huntington Library, specifically, as a place that caught her eye.
“I just keep landing in really special places,” she said, reflecting on the sum of her career.

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