Philomath Academy Counselor Beth Edgemon, left, and Principal Dan Johnson leads staff and graduates into Wednesday evening's ceremony. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Academy’s graduation ceremony Wednesday night on the lawn west of the alternative school’s new location featured not only a group of young people embarking on a new chapter in their lives but a veteran educator who is wrapping up four decades as an educator.

Dan Johnson expressed the sentiment that Philomath Academy will always be a special place when he looks back on his long career.

“It’s near and dear to my heart because not everybody fits the traditional classroom,” Johnson said. “And they need a place to be acknowledged, accepted, educated, cared for, loved. That’s what we do here.”

Philomath Academy’s Class of 2023 featured 16 students receiving diplomas.

“I liked that you could just do it on your own time and I was able to work when I wanted to,” graduate Mimosa Beck said about her experience at the school. “That’s a big part of it that was really nice.”

One of the challenges for Philomath Academy students relates to having a certain level of determination to stay on track with schoolwork.

“I got behind a couple of times and it took a lot to get caught back up and then I ended up finishing early,” Beck said. “So that took a lot of self-discipline.”

Philomath Academy graduate Kirsten Padilla decorated her mortarboard. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Another graduate, Colin Mahoney, had similar comments.

“It was post-COVID and I did it because I could go at my own pace,” Mahoney said about the decision to pursue his diploma through Philomath Academy. “I just rolled through it here because it worked well.”

Joining Beck and Mahoney in the class were Cole Beardsley, Maxwell Carter, Addison Cleveland, Kelston Gallagher, Gavin Hamilton, Isaac Harris, Gabriel Love, Finn Mainwaring, William Maness, Jordeyn McBride, Joseph McTavish, Kirsten Padilla, Sophie Rasmussen and Lacey Williams.

Johnson, who is a month shy of age 60, as mentioned has 40 years behind him as an educator, including the last 19 in the Philomath School District. He led the high school’s performing arts program for several years, a run that included back-to-back state championships in band in 2018-19, a state title in choir in 2017 and two national Grammy Signature School Awards before transitioning into the Philomath Academy principal’s job.

“He has always been willing to help students come up with a plan,” Philomath Academy counselor Beth Edgemon said. “Our school would not be here without Dan Johnson.”

Edgemon presented Johnson with a special plaque that in part reads, “Never underestimate the difference you made and the lives you touched.”

Johnson joked with the graduates and audience that he had cut the principal’s address down to 26 minutes, 32 seconds and began with “Life is a journey that is both simple and difficult.” But the speech was actually much, much shorter and just served as an illustration of Johnson’s sense of humor.

“I’m leaving it in good hands with the staff we have,” Johnson said after the ceremony. “We had a model when we opened our doors and we’ve stuck to it. In fact, I’ve been on committees throughout the state for alternative ed and I pushed a simple phrase — ‘Do what’s right for students. Period.’ And that’s what we believe in.”

With shortcomings in school funding, Johnson anticipates that the school district will not replace him with an incoming principal and mentioned that he has hopes that Edgemon will be placed in a lead position.

“She understands that this is the best school in the district because you get to affect students differently,” Johnson said.

Retiring Philomath Academy Principal Dan Johnson speaks during Wednesday’s ceremony. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Asked what’s next for him, Johnson said his wife has informed him that he’ll be a “house husband … so I’m going to learn how to cook a lot of dinners.”

Coincidentally, graduation fell on the couple’s 20th anniversary.

“I attribute a majority of my success to her support in my career,” Johnson said, who followed up with examples from the long hours to her support with school plays with roles such as costume designer and props person.

But there no doubt will be a part of the man who misses working in education.

“I’ve just been blessed with great students, great staff here,” he said. “The 35 years of me music directing and whatnot and then five years of doing alternative ed, there’s been some good moments.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.