If you ask Susan Johnson to describe herself, she’ll tell you that she’s a typical New Yorker who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Susan, or “Sue,” as many know her, spent most of her life in New York City, attending grade school, undergraduate, and graduate school in the area. Her New York roots are so deep that she even had her North Garden apartment remodeled to look like her very own New York loft.
“When I was younger, I used to ask my mother, ‘What’s across the water?’ And she would say, ‘Nothing, honey. Don’t pay any attention to it,’” she laughs. “It was only the rest of the United States!” Today, Sue has traveled all over the world — from Europe to Russia to the French Polynesian Islands, and even Africa, her favorite of them all. But before becoming a world traveler, Sue established herself in a career of education — and a pretty notable one at that.
In 1953, Sue graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and immediately went into teaching. “That’s what you did,” she says. “Men had come back from World War II and it wasn’t easy for women back then.” She spent several years as a teacher, even relocating from New York to Texas for three years with her first husband to serve as an elementary school teacher in San Antonio. To acquire her teaching license there, Sue was required to pass a class on Texas state history.
“Here I was a New Yorker in Texas,” she recalls. “The teacher took one look at me and said, ‘Y’all a Yankee?’” Sue passed the course with flying colors, and still remembers her response to the teacher’s final question: what did you learn? “I said ‘we lost!’” she jokes, referring to the Civil War.
After moving back to New York, Sue quickly climbed the professional ladder. She moved from teaching to serving as a guidance counselor at a junior high school from 1957 to 1959. Around that time, she increasingly began to notice a lack of women in educational leadership positions, which motivated her to go back to school and earn her master’s degree from Brooklyn College.
Degree in hand, Sue became an instructor in Teacher Education at Hofstra University on Long Island, and later moved on to serve in several high-ranking positions for the Great Neck Public School District. Her motivation didn’t end there. She went on to attend night school at Columbia University’s Teachers College, earning her Master of Education in 1976 and her Doctor of Education in 1978. And it wasn’t easy — at that time, Sue was divorced from her first husband and was raising her two children while working and attending school. “I would finish at 4 a.m.,” she remembers. “I’d write my dissertation at night, sleep for two hours, then get up with the kids and do it all over again.”
While at Teachers College, Sue interned as an assistant at the Superintendents Work Conference and worked alongside Dr. Carroll Johnson, 20 years her senior and a professor in educational administration at the time. “I took one look at him and knew we would be together as life partners,” Sue says of her now-late husband. They were “from two very different worlds” she recalls – she from Manhattan and he from a small farming town in Georgia. Years later, in 1990, they married and moved into an apartment near Columbia University — just three short blocks from the famous Tom’s Restaurant seen in Seinfeld. Together, with their blended family (her daughter and grandson, and his two children and three grandchildren), they became an unstoppable team. (Tragically, at the age of 21, Sue’s son was killed after being hit by a car while he was crossing 8th Avenue in New York.)
Two years before marrying Carroll, Sue had moved up from the Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Middle Island, New York, to the Superintendent of Schools in Florham Park, New Jersey — one of only five women superintendents in the country at the time. Prior to accepting that position, Sue was named one of North America’s 100 Top School Executives by the National School Boards Association, no small feat at the time. Later, she was recognized in the 1995–1996 edition of Who’s Who in American Women in Education. When asked how she achieved these amazing accomplishments, Sue simply replies, “You have to believe in yourself and have mentors who help you along the way — it takes resilience, belief, and commitment!”
While Sue is modest about her achievements, if you’ve ever met her, you know that her vibrant personality and go-getter attitude surely played a part. This is evident in a story she tells from her time as Assistant Superintendent, when she was asked to give a speech at a conference in front of 300 of her peers. While Sue was discussing the lack of women in leadership positions in the industry, one man stood up and started yelling that it was a sin to have women in these high-ranking positions. Sue stopped her speech, looked him straight in the eyes, and said, “If you don’t have a question, sit down.” After a major round of applause, Sue and her notorious speech were featured across the country in the conference’s national newsletter.
After serving four years as Superintendent, Sue transitioned full-time into an Educational Superintendent Search Consultant, a job she had previously been carrying out in her spare time. In this position, Sue traveled to, and conducted searches for, numerous districts, including Bernardsville, Montclair, and Millburn, New Jersey; Natrona County, Wyoming; and St. Louis, Missouri. She conducted searches assisting her husband, who had become the prime consultant for the National School Boards Association. Carroll was a nationally recognized scholar, and one of the first superintendents to voluntarily integrate schools during the 1960s in White Plains, a city school district in Westchester County, New York. He also created the superintendent search methodology that has been adopted all over the country.
Near the end of her post as Superintendent and the beginning of her time as a Search Consultant, Sue and Carroll visited a friend who had recently relocated from Martha’s Vineyard to Sarasota — and it was on that first visit that they fell in love with Sarasota. On a whim, they found a colorful townhouse on Longboat Key and put in a bid that was accepted that very same weekend. Sue and her husband owned that home for almost 20 years before visiting their dear friends, the Cooks, for brunch at Plymouth Harbor. After that, Carroll was sold, and following a short stint on the wait list, they moved into their North Garden apartment in 2010. A few years later, Carroll passed away at the age of 99.
Today, Sue is involved in an abundance of activities, and refers to herself as a “life-long learner.” Back in 1996, she developed an interest in mediation due to her work with teachers unions, so she became certified in family mediation in Sarasota’s 12th Judicial Circuit Court. A short time before that, she became a docent at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, where she still serves today.
To further satisfy her never-ending thirst for knowledge, Sue chairs the Plymouth Harbor Art Committee, is a member of the Library Committee and the Program Committee, and has given several book reports and art history presentations to fellow Plymouth Harbor residents. Sue previously served as a mentor to local principals, and now enrolls herself in at least three educational courses per year. Presently, she’s taking a course on Russian Literature at USF Sarasota’s Lifelong Learning Academy.
On any given day, after a friendly tennis match on Longboat Key or a brisk walk across the John Ringling Bridge, you can find Sue reading her iPad or plugged into her iPhone listening to a book. And it doesn’t stop there — Sue is currently learning bridge, and has plans to visit Oxford in the fall for a two-week course on British literature.
With a refreshing enthusiasm for life and a unique commitment to learning, Sue ends our conversation with a smile. “Living here at Plymouth Harbor has been an opportunity for me to meet the most interesting people with such varied backgrounds and experiences that enhance my quality of life and add to my joy of living,” she adds. “Life gives you great stories.” Indeed it does.