Current Issue / DU Alumni

Bill Johnson broke new ground as a deaf DU student

DU alum Bill Johnson is superintendent of St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Bill Johnson

Bill Johnson (BA mathematics ’64) was always interested in learning. He spent three hours every day being tutored by two aunts, both teachers, practicing school subjects and learning activities like cooking and gardening. He spent summers traveling the country, soaking up history about the parks and monuments he visited.

But being deaf made that more difficult, he says.

“I had to spend many, many more hours studying than the normal student because of a lack of a support system,” Johnson says. “There were no group-learning arrangements, nor tutorial arrangements.”

Still, Johnson counts himself lucky because his aunts, a high school basketball coach and his parents — both deaf — were able to sign to him “in the 1950s when that was unheard of” and give him extra help, even when others refused.

Now, other deaf students get extra help from Johnson. His passion for learning grew into teaching, where he had to break stereotypes and trepidation in Iowa and Oregon public schools. After teaching “regular” students and proving he had the capacity to do so, he began to focus on two extremes — gifted students and those who had difficulty learning.

Being deaf doesn’t keep him from communicating with students. “My speech is quite good for a person with a profound hearing problem,” Johnson says. His speech-reading skills also are excellent, he adds.

Johnson has held superintendent positions at deaf schools in Illinois and Iowa. He started Iowa’s first group home for developmentally disabled children and has hosted more than five deaf foreign exchange students. Today, he serves as superintendent of St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo, N.Y.

“Because of all my opportunities, it seems most appropriate that I provide opportunities for other individuals to achieve the best that they can be,” Johnson says.

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