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Mr. Minnesota Nice

Wednesday, April 02, 2014 by Alec Torigian by How one Catholic school teacher in Minnesota has made all the difference for his students


Written by: Alec Torigian

The application process to become an ACE teacher is both involved and competitive. It is also very personal. In fact, the first essay prompt asks why you feel called to ACE, and a later prompt asks you to describe an influential teacher from your past. For me, the two answers had a great deal of overlap. I can't think about my desire to serve Catholic schools without thinking about the inspiration I derived from the example set by Mr. J.

Dave "Mr. J" Johnson has been the PE teacher at St. Raphael's in Crystal, MN (near Minneapolis) since 1977. He is also the Athletic Director, Health and Science teacher, and coach for several high school basketball teams in the Twin Cities. The longevity and variety of his dedication to Catholic schools in the Twin Cities, however, are not the only things that makes him special.

"Minnesota nice" is a phrase often used to describe "politely friendly" folks from my beloved state just south of Canada who "have a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out" (thank you, Wikipedia). Within minutes of meeting Mr. J, you would agree that he is a great example of such a kind and understated person, and you would likely join the hundreds (thousands?) who have sung his praises.

Yes, Mr. J is a Minnesotan, and yes, he certainly is the epitome of the adjective "nice." It's also safe to say he's humble, not wanting to stand out. But here's the thing - he does stand out. While his incredibly gentle demeanor may not seem to match his giant physical stature, his heart is as big as they come.

If you ask any of Mr. J's former students or players, they would sing the same praise. Mr. J puts his heart and soul into the school community that he feels blessed to serve, and, as I wrote in that ACE admissions essay, he reminds us all of Jesus' love by the way that he deeply loves and respects everyone he meets.

In his time as a Catholic school educator and coach, Mr. J has inspired people who have gone on to do everything from winning an NBA championship to teaching middle school to sending their own children to St. Raphael's to learn from him. He is keenly aware of every child's need to be loved and to be exposed to respectful role models - so he gives them exactly that.

The perfect example of Mr. J's unique form of "nice" can be summed up in a recent experience. When he learned that about half the students at St. Raphael School sought significant financial assistance in order to continue their Catholic education, he knew had to act. A few short months thereafter, and with the help of the administration, he helped the school raise $30,000 in what has become known as the Mr. J Scholarship Fund. To top it off, an anonymous donor heard of the effort and has matched the $30,000. The fund will be a game-changer for many of these school families who struggle to make ends meet.

If you are lucky enough to stop by my favorite state and make your way over to St. Raphael's, you may find Mr. J mowing the baseball fields, running the parish softball tournament, talking to prospective families, or heading to Mass. The one thing that will stand out long after you leave there, however, is that Catholic schools continue to make the impossible happen because of people like Mr. J – people that we should try to emulate - and that's even greater than Minnesota nice.

About the Author

Alec Torigian

Alec Torigian

Alec Torigian currently serves as the Associate Director of ACE Teaching Fellows. Prior to this joining the ACE Team, Alec taught with the Benedictine Volunteer Corps in Tanzania and then was a member of ACE's 18th cohort of Teaching Fellows, where he taught middle school math, science, and religion at Most Pure Heart of Mary in Mobile, AL. Upon his graduation, Alec spent three years working with the ACE Pastoral Team before spending two years teaching at the Academy of St. Benedict the African in Chicago, IL.