Profile of a Drama Queen

Recently  I was interviewed by Beth Burman-Frazee for the Osher Livelong Learning Institute at the University of Montana.

If you have not yet met your fellow MOLLI member, and current chair of the program committee, Margaret Johnson, I suggest you do so at your earliest convenience. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Margaret recently and found her to be quite the force of nature. This seems to be the case of both native Montanan’s and retired public school teachers, two badges of honor which Margaret wears proudly. Although Margaret has been in Missoula since 1963, she hails from Glasgow, Montana, and she taught theatre at Sentinel High for 37 years.Margaret is currently serving her final year as chair of the program committee. This is the committee largely responsible for the excellent course offerings that MOLLI provides term after term.  Members of the committee read the course proposals and select the instructors and courses that they think the membership would most enjoy and benefit from. Margaret takes little personal credit for the successful MOLLI programming but champions the work of her committee as a whole and the quality proposals they receive from both current and new MOLLI instructors.“There are 12 people on the committee and it’s the diversity of personalities that help make the program so wonderfully varied. We are all willing to argue, but we also all leave each meeting with a laugh,” she said.

Margaret’s relationship with the MOLLI program started in 2007. She’s taught a variety of drama activities, ending with Improvisational Acting from 2007-2012, and 2014. The subject matter was no stretch for her, after her long tenure of teaching high school theatre. After she retired from Sentinel, they named the new theatre after her. Teaching at Sentinel and for MOLLI helped inspired both of her books, The Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide and The Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide #2. For those who are acquainted with Margaret, it may come as no surprise that she did not tolerate laziness in her high school classes. She said her students probably thought she was really “hard-nosed.” By her own admission, she has definite ideas about things, but Margaret is always is willing to listen and shift her thinking when necessary. She loved watching her students grow from the casting process to the closing curtain of a show, loved to watch them realize what they could accomplish. The key lesson she taught them is universal, never sell oneself short. Regarding the youth of today, she said, “If we give up on them, they will give up on themselves.” Her wisdom seems timeless.

Of course, Margaret lives a rich life outside of both MOLLI and her teaching career. She and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on Christmas day, 2014. She said he picked the date because it was easy to remember. He was the first boy who kissed her at age six. Insert smiley face here. They live in a Gibson designed home that they bought in 1968 and have spent many years carefully restoring. When I asked her how one manages such a long, successful marriage, she said it’s important to have some common core values and to be willing to laugh along the way, not at them but with them. She enjoys classical music, and her guilty pleasure is reading Cozy murder mysteries with a latte in hand.

Margaret is extremely (and rightly so) proud of publishing two books. She told me she learned to use a computer while working on the first book. Now she has her own website! She was so proud of her first literary infant when she handed it oh so carefully to her editor. She said his criticism crushed her. The book bled red ink when he returned it. She put it away for six months, and upon coming back to it, saw the value of a great editor. I found it greatly touching when Margaret told me that her mother would have been proud of her for publishing. Margaret lost mother to MS when she was just a senior in high school, one of the most difficult things she has ever overcome.

Margaret has been lucky to have some great mentors, including her high school drama teacher, a chair-throwing, hot-tempered sort, and the chair of the theatre department at Macalester College, the small liberal arts school she attended. “My most vivid memory is that of Mary Gwen Owen.  What a force she was in the Drama Department, with her suits, hats and jingly bracelets. She became the mom I no longer had. When I started teaching I created an office, off my classroom, that years later I realized emulated her office.”

When I asked her what she learned from them and what she could pass along, she said, “laugh, join MOLLI, never stop learning, always look at the positive before delving into the negative, and never, ever be afraid to say sorry or I’ve made a mistake.” After meeting her, I tucked these little tidbits of advice into a file folder in my brain and vowed not to forget them.

Like others who enjoy MOLLI, Margaret values the relationship with the University of Montana. “Having MOLLI based within the School of Extended & Lifelong Learning at UM provides leadership support, through Dean Maclean and administrative support. MOLLI brings people to campus and allows them to realize that UM is a community resource, accessible to everyone,” she said.

Although Margaret will no longer serve as program chair, she is by no means retiring from MOLLI.  She thinks it’s imperative to keep your brain active, not to mention the companionship and comradery that MOLLI engenders. She also enjoys learning without the added pressure of grades of tests.

“It’s a freeing way to learn,” she said, “in MOLLI we don’t have the red marker.” When I asked her what MOLLI class she hasn’t yet been able to take but might like to in the future, she replied, “90% of them.” So, when you see Margaret exploring a new MOLLI class, be sure to join me in thanking her for her years of volunteer service and for making MOLLI, and maybe even the world, a little bit better and a lot more interesting.