Monday, August 5, 2013

The Boss Lady

In 1995, I happened to be wandering through the student center at Angelo State University.  I came upon a job fair for summer camps, and there I met one of the most influential people I predict I will have ever known.

It was just a Tuesday.  Who could predict such a thing on a random Tuesday afternoon?

Her name was Laurie Johnston, and she was the director of a Campfire Boys and Girls camp in the metroplex area.  Our first conversation included a vague disapproval of my Girl-Scoutiness.  I did not like her at all.  Luckily for her (and me), her brilliant assistant, Kyle, hired me anyway.
LJ the Doubter and Kyle the Brilliant

She scared the holy hell out of me those first two summers when I was a cabin counselor, but there were flashes of a wicked sense of humor.  Her most famous prank included a day-long stay in the Counselor's Cabin with a dead snake on a string.  She'd hide it under a chair or yank the string and make a few grownfolks pee their pants -- either out of fear or laughter.  Then, a couple new suckers would come in on their time off and the whole process would repeat itself.
LJ loves to laugh. Uncontrollably so.

When I joined the ad staff in my 3rd summer, I found that she wasn't quite as intimidating as I had once believed.  In fact, she was kind and supportive and funny.  She was innovative with how she dealt with kids, and she trained her staff really, really well.  Mainly, she trained us to just trust our gut, make a decision, and follow-through.  I truly believe that trust guides us all in our careers to this very day.
Camp Mom, Camp Director, two old Camp Counselors, and a future camper
But she was tough when she had to be.  I've seen her call the police on drunken parents, fire six counselors in one day, and crush a championship liar with only a yellow legal pad and a ballpoint pen.  She even fired a shitty counselor and stuck him on a plane home to Finland on the same day his apartment burned down.  (Don't feel bad -- he was really, truly shitty.)  You just don't mess with LJ's kids.
Two of her favorite boys
I've also seen her pick up a huge dinner tab for some starving college students, pick the lice out of a crying child's hair, and yank a severely injured staff member out of a lake and then sit bedside for a week in the burn unit. She takes pretty good care of her kids too.
LJ and another favorite, Sophia
I've been a classroom teacher for 13 years.  Laurie helped me clean out my first classroom.  She threw out 5 garbage cans of useless material and left a little wisdom and guidance behind.  It has never left those shelves.  So much of what I know about how to talk to my students, how to help them, how to guide them -- has come from her.  Everything I know about being a good employee, handling a crisis, and making a flexible plan has come from her as well.  She has helped raise teachers, lawyers, therapists, coaches, policemen, doctors, politicians, and camp directors.
Just a few of her El Tesoro staff

LJ, Jamie, and Alison

LJ and some of her Camp Carter counselors
 Laurie has a knack for making guacamole, sipping margaritas, and hogging babies.  She can play the guitar while lining out song lyrics and pointing out misbehaving children (or prisoners on the swinging bridge) without breaking a sweat.  LJ is the queen of first impressions, second chances, and new beginnings.  She is always the first person to tell you, "You can do this" when you are struggling.  She is also always the first person to tell you when something's not a great idea.  And on both occasions, she's usually right.
Baby Hoggin' with Meyer

Laurie is salt on the glass and sugar in the salsa.  She is guitar strings and fine china.  She is Nivea lotion, Hershey kisses, and Diet Coke.  She is a nature girl from the heart of the big city.  She is bluebonnets and cedar trees and campfire smoke.  She is the pack leader for the Co-dependent Dog Society.  She is reality t.v. and flannel pajama pants and flowerdy shorts.  She is John Denver and buttercream icing and church giggles.
The iconic guitar.  

Leading songs at El Tesoro de la Vida

She is terrible at accents and dishonesty and kicking footballs.  I mean really terrible.

In the past 16 years, Laurie has been a mentor, a mom, a big sister, a spiritual guide, a confidante, and a boss.  She's been a pain in the ass, a saving grace, a ceremonial figurehead, a life-saver, and a brutal truth-teller (it's her sacred duty, y'all).  And she's been one of the best friends I've ever known.
Pat and LJ 

Pat and LJ, pickin' and grinnin'

She's been one of the best friends that a lot of people have known.

The Johnston Girls -- circa "Way Back When"

The Johnston Girls -- circa "Not So Long Ago"
LJ and her Ray Bean Girls

LJ and her El Tesoro Girls

Happy Birthday, Boss Lady.  I hope you know what you mean to so many.

**Clarification:  LJ is NOT terrible at actual accents, but when someone speaks to her in a distinct accent, she absolutely cannot resist/control answering them back in the same accent.  If you're British, she'll bloody answer you back as if she's the Queen herself.  If you're a country bumpkin, she's gonna bumpkin you right back.  If you're a German cardiologist, she'll get elbowed in the ribs by me so as not to offend him.  But it's pretty hysterical -- especially when she doesn't realize she's doing it.


  1. That is so sweet. I don't deserve it and certainly don't deserve a friend like you! And I am terrific at accents!

  2. All three of those comments are false, Laurie Bell Johnston Garner. Especially the accent one.

  3. I could only hope for such an amazing post about myself some day. Perfectly written and pin pointed. Pretty fancy that Mey-dawg is famous, now.

    Happy bday LJ. May you always have a bottle of champagne (and a ride home.)

  4. Don't you worry, little sister. Your day will come. But that picture of Meyer was just too precious not to use. Glad you like it and you're not gonna sue me.




  6. Thanks, Kit! Tell Zach I'm excited for our trip, too!

  7. I agree that she probably has no idea how much she impacted my career. Sure, I left her and moved on to education but there are times when I have a kid or staff member in my office and I find myself using something I learned from her. Just like teaching, her impact is timeless and will continue with every child I reach. That being said, another thing she is REALLY terrible at is using teenage slang terms. She has no idea what they mean yet she continues to repeat them in social settings. Like the time she asked an innocent parent about her son's "Red Eye". Or told the African American man he was "Right as Rice." To which I had to explain to her that the man looked shocked because the term was "white as rice." Some of the best years of my career were with her!

  8. Oh, excellent call, Kyle. You're right as... well, you know.

  9. Every word right on and well deserved. Love you LJ and happy birthday! :-)

  10. She is also NOT a good judge of distance while navigating the low water crossing when it is under water (at Camp El Tesoro). "Get closer, get closer, get closer"....then when the front tire slides off the road and we all shriek she looks at me it total seriousness and says, "Ooooooops, too close)! She took a childless banker and turned him into a volunteer Camp Director for one week a year. You must have pulled your hair out the first few years of my directorship! I still pause when hit with issues at camp and think, what would LJ do. I still have not mastered finding a fossil without looking down or seeing the flag dropping while playing a guitar and singing a song....but working on it! She is also a GREAT partner on a golf cart at midnight when you are having a water war with the camp Therapists! I love me some LJ!