Retired music teacher Ray Johnson has a goal he’d like to meet by the new year.
During the pandemic, Johnson, 81, has sleuthed around to find his former students in the Fort Vancouver High School 1977 jazz band.
“I’ve located 11 of them so far, and I have 11 more to go,” Johnson said.
The former band director wants to give them a recording of their very last session together on June 6, 1977. It was Johnson’s last day teaching there, too.
“That one is special because it’s the very last day of the very last class, and the very last minute I got to see my kids. That’s special,” Johnson said. “There so many seniors in the band; I would not have that much talent to work with for years to come. It was time for me to move on.”
It turned out, Johnson had made a reel-to-reel recording on a Wollensak tape recorder in the back of the band room. After rediscovering the recording, Johnson spent time putting the sounds onto a cassette, then on a CD.
“This is the thing that makes history come alive for me,” he said. “I’m so anxious to let them know, here’s a blast from the past. They may think it’s important too.”
Those he has found so far are scattered all over the United States. Some of them continued playing music while others didn’t. Regardless, several students had one thing in common to say about Johnson: He had a big impact on their life.
Though his hearing isn’t as great now, Johnson’s memory of all things musical is still fresh.
Johnson recalled coming from a musical family: His mother played piano and sang; his father played banjo, guitar and harmonica.
“My brother had a cornet. I found it in the closet; he had already gone to war. He lost his life in a German death march,” Johnson said. “I found that old cornet and got into the fifth-grade band in Aberdeen School District. Eventually I got a better instrument.”
He took music lessons and performed all over town. Johnson then got scholarships to attend college at the former Central Washington State College (now Central Washington University).
Then, Johnson went on to teach music.
After teaching at Fort Vancouver High School, he taught at Hudson’s Bay in the vocal department and also taught elementary school-level music. He ended his teaching career in 1992.
Though his career ended, he still finds time to play music. It has kept him busy during the pandemic. He has even recorded videos of himself singing and playing piano and uploaded them to his YouTube channel. Most recently Johnson played for his family on a Zoom video call for Thanksgiving.
“I was like OK, this helps, because we’re trapped,” he said.
Finding his students has given him more to focus on during the pandemic, too, he said.
A trip to the casino
Though he’s taught many other students, the 1977 class holds a special spot in Johnson’s heart — which is why he’s trying to locate them.
It all started with a trip to ilani.
Tim Zieman, 61, was enjoying a night out there earlier this year, watching the Major League Baseball World Series. He started talking to someone else in the suite.
They shared names of teachers and talked about other events.
“I got to one more teacher. I said ‘Do you know Ray Johnson?’ I said I was in a band and probably of all the teachers, he’s been the biggest influence on my life — as he is with a lot of our classmates,” Zieman said.
“He smiles, he says ‘Yeah, he’s married to my sister,'” Zieman said.
Zieman shared his phone number. Zieman and Johnson reconnected and Johnson shared the 1977 recording.
“I had forgotten we did that,” Zieman said. “We were one of the best bands to come out of this area. Not saying because it’s me, but because the talent that was there was incredible.”
Though Zieman stuck around the area — he lives in Washougal — he didn’t stick with music; he’s a construction contractor. Nonetheless Zieman started working with Johnson to find the other students.
One includes Dr. Rob Murray, 62, a professor of trumpet at Columbus State University in Georgia.
“(Johnson) had a huge influence on me in high school. He would give me private lessons; he introduced me to a lot of great material and studies,” Murray said. “It inspired me.”
In fact, Murray wasn’t going to pursue music initially after graduating high school and heading to college. He considered medical school.
“I’ll never forget it. I got to the spring quarter, I sat down with my adviser and was looking at next year’s schedule. My adviser told me all the music stuff has got to go because it’s not going to fit into the schedule,” Murray said. “It gave me a real pause. It probably took me the rest of the quarter to make a decision. I haven’t regretted it one bit.”
Anthony Hawkins, 62, was also a trumpet player. But after high school, he joined the Army. Now he lives in Maryland and works for the federal government. He was delighted to hear from Johnson.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Hawkins said. “I think he got us a lot more curious about each other.”
Hawkins said he has passed Johnson’s teachings onto his own children. His son is now a music teacher in Texas.
“I’ve always taught them to be a part of something bigger than them,” Hawkins said. “The band, for example — to have a common cause or purpose. And learning how to respect how your actions or inactions can impact the success of that bigger thing, such as in the case of a band.”
“(Johnson is) so under appreciated,” Zieman said. “But not by anybody who was in band with him.”
“The feedback makes it all worthwhile,” Johnson said. “I’m giving them something and they’re giving it back.”