Odessa Johnson closes the book on Modesto school board service

Odessa Johnson is easy to spot on Sundays at the Second Baptist Church off California Avenue, wearing lilac, blue or silver hats with sequins, rhinestones or polka dots.

She has a degree from an Ivy League university, but she remembers what it's like to walk to school with no sidewalks.

Johnson met her best friend in a Maze Boulevard laundromat, but feels just as comfortable in the offices of California's most influential school officials.

Johnson, 68, has been a fixture in Modesto education for 45 years. She has been a Modesto High School teacher, Modesto Junior College dean and a 16-year member of the Modesto City Schools Board of Education. She will attend her last school board meeting Monday after deciding not to seek re-election.

Johnson has lived west of Highway 99 for most of her life in Modesto, and she's become an icon in that part of town.

During her time on the board, she's proved herself to be approachable, accessible and effective.

"Odessa is the type of person, if you meet her once, you've met her all the time," said Andrea Thompson, a former Modesto High student of Johnson's. "You see her everywhere. She can talk to anybody on any level, I don't care who they are. She just has a deep sense of community."

District administrators said Johnson's personality allowed her to reach parents, many without much formal education, who were afraid to stand and speak at board meetings.

"She was straightforward with parents; she didn't use educational bureaucratic jargon to disguise the issue," said Jim Pfaff, who worked with Johnson as a high school principal and associate superintendent. "She would look straight at the parent at the podium and tell them what she was doing. It might not be an answer they like, but they would accept it because it came from Odessa."

They would accept it because Johnson knew how to reach most everybody. She could pound her fist on the table one minute, then let out a deep belly laugh the next.

Respected for her strong stands

One fist-pounding issue came in 2005, when Johnson continu-ally voted against the district's policy to put high schoolers into college preparatory courses based only on their state test scores. Johnson believed test scores alone, without using grades or teacher references, would keep too many students from going on to four-year colleges. A lawsuit eventually forced the district to add other ways for students to qualify for the classes.

Johnson also led the effort to revise a U.S. Constitution test required for students to graduate from eighth grade. Some argued the long multiple-choice questions were too tough for special education students or those who were learning English to understand. The test was revamped in 2006.

" 'That was the way we always did it' was not a platform for her," said Robin Brown, Johnson's former school board colleague. "She wasn't afraid to push an issue, even if it made somebody mad. I had a lot of respect for that."

Johnson supported former longtime Superintendent Jim Enochs' plan to put full-time college counselors in each high school during the 1999-2000 school year, despite its cost. Since then, more Modesto students have gone on to four-year colleges and have earned millions more in financial aid scholarships.

Pfaff said if he forgot to include data on how many students of color were completing University of California or California State University requirements, "Odessa was going to call me on it."

Though Johnson has deep roots in the city's predominately black neighborhoods, her colleagues said her focus was on improving education for at-risk children of all colors.

"I never felt like she was focusing on an issue because it's a race issue," Brown said. "She looked out for all kids and you knew it."

Johnson grew up in Greenville, S.C., in the heat of civil rights struggles. Equal education still was a long ways off.

Her mother was a cafeteria cook at a new all-white high school near their home, baking "mean" cherry pies, fried chicken and mashed potatoes for students at lunch. There was a maid stationed in the bathroom.

Johnson walked two miles to the all-black Sterling High School. There were no sidewalks or new textbooks. Jesse Jackson, the future civil rights activist, lived a block from Johnson and was one of her schoolmates.

She got a degree from Tennessee State University, then earned a full ride to attend Columbia University in New York, where she got her master's degree in business education.

A black teacher at Modesto High

Stepping off the train in Modesto in 1962, Johnson said, she felt like an unknowing movie extra in a B Western. Her first teaching job was at Modesto High School, where she was the school's first black teacher.

Johnson was the only black professor at Modesto Junior College when she became a counselor there in 1970. She retired in 2001 as its dean of community and economic development.

Johnson first ran for the school board in 1991. She gathered a team of volunteers and friends who called themselves the "kitchen cabinet."

The late Ernest Gallo gave generously to her campaigns, at $5,000 a pop. That was enough for the kitchen cabinet to fondly nickname him "Uncle Ernest."

In 1999, former Gov. Davis put 166,000 more students in Johnson's charge. She was twice appointed to the UC Board of Regents. She'll serve until 2012.

Her first year as a regent, Johnson fought to keep a dialysis unit from closing at Mount Zion Hospital, which is operated by the University of San Francisco Medical Center to serve needy patients. That battle was a personal one.

Her husband, Lure, died from complications of diabetes in 1997. He had a kidney transplant and spent the last years of his life with both legs amputated above his knees.

Doctors helped keep him alive just long enough to see their only daughter, Sylvia, graduate earlier that year from UCLA.

Last week, Johnson met with new UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang about building a medical school there.

At her house just blocks from MJC's West Campus, her late husband's black 1990 Toyota pickup -- the Johnsons called it Tyrone -- still is parked in the driveway.

Her personal hobby is stored in bags and frames and boxes containing newspaper clippings and artifacts documenting Modesto's black history and her own family tree.

Johnson shows off a portrait of her great-grandmother, born in 1865 on a South Carolina plantation. She has saved newspaper articles since the 1970s that mention area African-American families and leaders.

No clue about 'Mammy'

There's one moment in Modesto's race-relations history Johnson doesn't need a newspaper clipping to remember.

In 1991, she judged a lip sync contest meant to promote racial understanding.

Three people from the Modesto Chamber of Commerce donned blackface and performed the Al Jolson song "Mammy" for the event. Johnson's husband hooted at the performers and left. Her teenage daughter, now a family law prosecutor for Los Angeles County, was distraught. Johnson wrote a public letter and received an apology from the performers.

"They didn't have a clue as to the fact that they sang 'Mammy' in blackface, that it was going to upset some folks," Johnson said. "The symbolism behind the noose, the symbolism behind the (Confederate) flag, the symbolism behind the blackface, that says a lot to folks who have been there."

On issues of race, sometimes she lost.

She asked the Modesto school board to remove "Huckleberry Finn" as required reading in high school, after parents complained that their children were using the "N-word" with each other at school.

No one else on the board agreed with removing the book, but Johnson is glad she brought it up. She said the debate helped teachers focus not just on teaching Mark Twain's famous book but also on racism in the deep South, too.

"I don't hear any complaints about 'Huck Finn' anymore," Johnson said. "I think it did make a difference, because they went back to look at how it was presented to kids."

When she retires, Johnson wants to go back where she started -- perhaps Modesto High -- so she can help students who don't have what she was able to give her daughter. She wants to help grow a corps of adult volunteers to go into the high schools.

"When Sylvia graduated from high school," Johnson recalled, "I said half of that (diploma) is really mine, because I've been with you from kindergarten. Being a college administrator and a college graduate myself, I knew how to help her. I knew how to buy the right books. Children who are successful in school generally have found a person who really cares about them. Some kids have nobody."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.