Philanthropists Honored for Commitment to Literacy and the Arts

Angela Johansson, M.A. '05

For a half-century, Jerry Johns has been a teacher of teachers.

A renowned reading professor, Johns taught 6,000 students over 30 years on the faculty at Northern Illinois University. They, in turn, have touched the lives of thousands of students globally.

Every step of the way, Johns’ partner has been his wife of 53 years, Annette. When Jerry became an assistant professor of reading in the College of Education at NIU in 1970, Annette focused her energies on philosophy and education as well as the university’s performing arts, especially theater.

In recognition of their decades-long commitment to service as well as financial support to the university, the couple received the NIU Foundation Award for High Impact Philanthropy at the NIU Foundation’s Red and Black gala last November.

Catherine Squires, vice president of University Advancement and president and CEO of the NIU Foundation, said Jerry and Annette are a natural choice for the honor. “They are true philanthropists in every sense of the word,” she said. “The breadth and depth of their support to the university and worthy causes in the community is truly remarkable. Their impact will continue to benefit our university and wider communities for generations.”

Among other accomplishments, Johns has been a key force behind a community clinic in his name that serves more than 500 students annually, from kindergarten through high school, with reading support and which provides a venue for students pursuing graduate degrees in reading and continuing education as well as professional development for reading specialists.

“Jerry and Annette’s contributions to the Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic have helped us grow the program, help more students who struggle to read and expand our footprint in the community in terms of providing literacy services,” explained Laurie Elish-Piper, dean of the College of Education. “Their gift has elevated the clinic, making it one of the best at any university in the country.”

In 2007, Jerry and Annette established a scholarship through the DeKalb County Community Foundation to benefit NIU women in theater, and they have named the box office in the soon-to-be-completed Stevens Building at Northern. Recently, they finalized plans to name the Student Gallery of NIU’s Art Building.

Jerry and Annette’s zeal for learning and creativity is “embedded in the DNA of the college,” said Dr. Paul Kassel, dean of the NIU College of Visual and Performing Arts.

“They love what they do, they love people and that love spills out in many forms,” Kassel said. “We’re so grateful for their contributions to the college.”

Dr. Alfred Tatum, dean of the College of Education and director of the University of Illinois-Chicago Reading Clinic, called Johns “one of the most thoughtful, caring professors.” An undergraduate student of Johns, and later a colleague at NIU, Tatum added that “the way he taught and inspired all of us to really think about the role of reading in society was extremely profound.” 

Johns, who retired as a distinguished teaching professor in 2000, has served as president of the International Reading Association, the Illinois Reading Council, and the Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers. Three years ago, he was voted into the Reading Hall of Fame by scholars throughout the world.

His wife Annette, whose varied background includes five years as an elementary school teacher and master’s degrees in both Reading and Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education, said that art and theater offer a gateway to new worlds of experience, emotion and knowledge. 

She has channeled her passion for the various arts at NIU and across many platforms and counts the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Ellwood House Museum, and Stage Coach Players among those she most enjoys supporting through fundraising and other promotional activity.

Meanwhile, for Johns, a simple, powerful formula has long been at the root of his literacy passion: “If you can read, you can learn. It unlocks the world.”

Guests at the Red and Black, where the Johnses received their award, raised more than $300,000 for student scholarships. Click here to join them in supporting NIU.