After 26 years as an Extension agent, including the last 22 in Richland County, Judy Johnson has decided to retire.
Officially, Johnson’s last day is June 30, but she hopes Friday will be her last day in the Montana State University Extension office.
As Richland County’s family consumer sciences extension agent, Johnson has fielded a wide variety of questions over the years she has spent teaching life skills ranging from money management, food and nutrition, home repair, time and stress management and parenting.
Johnson said she’ll miss the camaraderie she has with her co-workers and other Extension agents throughout the state, but she is looking forward to retirement, something she decided she was ready for in September.
“I had never planned to work until retirement age,” she said. “I didn’t quite know when I would quit, but all of the sudden it just felt like it was time. That’s about all I can say about it. I’m ready.
“I’m going to do whatever I feel like doing. After you’ve had a pretty structured life for so long, because I’ve always worked, I don’t know exactly what I want to do.”
Growing up in Shelby, Johnson was introduced to home economics at a young age by her mother, Adeline, who taught her to sew, cook and can food among other skills. Adeline was also a 4-H leader, leading Johnson to an active role in the youth organization.
“My mom taught me every life skill that was out there,” Johnson said. “In the 4-H program, I developed those skills and interests. That kind of led to my profession with home ec teaching and Extension. What my mom taught me led to what I ended up doing.”
She said she also learned a lot from her father, an auto mechanic, who encouraged her to solve problems on her own. “Between the two of them, I learned if you have a problem, it’s not a problem, it’s just something you figure out and do,” she said.
Johnson attended Montana State University where she majored in home economics education, with the intention of becoming a teacher. After graduating, she spent one year teaching in Hinsdale before moving to Chinook to work as an Extension agent in Blaine County.
“Extension I really liked, because you are still doing the education and learning, but as one kid told me, what I do is like being a teacher without a classroom,” Johnson said. “So I get to do a lot of education with different groups of people in different settings, so the job is different all the time, and that’s really exciting.”
Johnson met her future husband, a farmer from Fairview, shortly before she moved to Butte to work in the Silverbow County Extension office. A year later, the two got married, and Johnson moved to Fairview, eventually landing a job with Richland County extension.
While Johnson has worked to deliver educational material to Richland County’s citizens on a broad spectrum of topics, she said the most common questions she has received concern food safety. “Maybe they went to the store to buy chicken because it was on sale, and then they forgot to put it in the refrigerator or the freezer and it’s a day and a half later, and it’s like, can I eat this?” she said.“Usually those questions required you to dispose of the food, throw it out and not eat it because it wasn’t safe, but you never knew when you hung up the phone if people were really going to do that or not.”
Johnson has clearly enjoyed her job. That becomes obvious when she’s asked what she hasn’t liked about it. After a long pause, Johnson said planning her day was occasionally frustrating, because different things would come up unexpectedly, forcing her to put off the work she had planned to accomplish on a given day. Then she quickly turns back positive aspects of the job.
“For the most part, people were very good to deal with,” she said. “We have specialists on the state level that provide a lot of support to us as far as the education and information. We are really fortunate with the people that we have, so it’s just been a fun, rewarding job.”
Technology has changed the way Johnson delivers information to Richland County residents. She said she used to have to go to clubs and present lessons, but now she’s able to reach a larger audience through e-mail. “A couple years ago we developed a meal-time solutions newsletter to help busy people eat food that’s reasonably healthy and is quick and easy to prepare. That goes out on e-mail, rather than paper copy. We try to use whatever technology or techniques that reach people.”
Johnson said her favorite thing about being a family consumer sciences Extension agent is the fact that she’s always working with people in a positive light. She recalls one specific example when she wrote an article about getting kids to eat healthy. She told parents to send healthy snacks to school with their kids, and to keep trying, even if their kids resisted.
“A lady stopped me on the street after I had done a news article on trying to feed kids healthy,” Johnson said. “She stopped me and said that article inspired her to keep on going, because it’s a discouraging thing.”
Johnson intends to stay in Fairview, but she said she’s looking forward to spending more time with her mother on the other end of the state. The two share a birthday, Aug. 2, and they intend to spend it together this year for the first time in several years.