By Jeff Kelley
For the faculty and staff holiday door-decorating contest at VCU Health Administration’s old offices in the historic Grant House, Ann Johnston, Ed.D., MHA and Laura McClelland, Ph.D. hatched a grand plan.
Instead of casing their office doors with Santas, snowy scenes, and gift wrapping, the pair uploaded faculty headshots onto the popular JibJab website, and placed the heads on the bodies of cartoon dancing elves. Then they rigged up a computer and projector from McClelland’s office to shine onto Johnston’s door, where elves danced a jig in a hallway filled year-round, McClelland says, with “laughter and energy.”
“We laughed so hard,” she recalls. Their efforts didn’t win the contest, and as Johnston would note: “We were robbed.”
It was one of several stories McClelland told of her former VCU colleague, decade-long friend, and mentor to many students and faculty members. Johnston passed away last week after a brief illness. She was 69.
Johnston was among the first women to attend the University of Virginia, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in the mid-1970s (the university opened to coeducation in 1970). In the 1980s, she ran preschools and raised kids in the Richmond area, but, feeling something was missing, decided to go back to school. Then a mom of three, she gained her master’s degree in health administration from VCU in 1990 — and, after returning as a faculty member 21 years later (then in her early 60s), earned her Doctor of Education in leadership there, too.
“I always said she was a lover of new beginnings,” says Becca Taubel, Johnston’s daughter. “She is someone who never thought it was too late in life to start something new, or start a new adventure.”
After earning her MHA, Johnston spent 22 years in healthcare leadership in both proprietary and not-for-profit healthcare systems. She served as vice president of High Point Regional Health System in High Point, N.C., and was chief operating officer at both Columbus Regional Healthcare System in Whiteville, N.C, and HCA Lanier Park Hospital in Gainesville, Ga. She also founded her own consulting practice, guiding healthcare systems on strategic planning and new business development.
It was those two-plus decades of experience she brought back to her alma mater when she joined the VCU Health Administration faculty in August 2011. Her journey to Richmond came at the request of emerita professor Dolores Clement, Dr. P.H., M.S., M.A., who asked her to direct the department’s professional development and continuing education programs. It was also the right time to come back to Virginia for Johnston, whose mother was in a Northern Neck retirement community.
“She just wanted to make a difference. She just wanted to help,” recalls McClelland, then a rookie who’d just finished her Ph.D. and joined the faculty a month prior to Johnston. The co-workers fast became friends.
While at VCU, Johnston also led the Executive MBA program’s health care management concentration. She created a nine-credit curriculum focused on national, employer, and industry perspectives surrounding health care.
“Ann was truly the architect of the program. And she loved it,” says McClelland, an associate professor and director of the department’s Doctoral Program in Health Services Organization & Research. “She would describe it as another ‘new, fun energetic group of students.’”
A fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), Johnston left VCU in 2016 to become MHA program director at Indiana University at Indianapolis. There, she presided over the program's 50th anniversary celebration. Under her leadership, the program overhauled the recruitment process, added new scholarships, successfully obtained re-accreditation, and launched an executive MHA track.
“Moreover, Dr. Johnston was an exemplar advocate and mentor to students and is credited with greatly increasing the number of MHA students who pursued administrative fellowships,” says Nir Menachemi, Ph.D., MPH, Indiana’s Health Policy and Management department chair.
Johnston retired last fall, returned to Virginia and, this spring, taught human resources in the department’s residential master’s program.
“Ann had a gift for mentoring and teaching,” says McClelland. “She was just so talented and gifted with the students, and provided so much one-on-one direct coaching. She was committed to their personal growth and development.”
And through dry wit, she could also give them tough love. “She had a way of straight talk, and she would give you praise, but would have some really tough conversations with students,” McClelland says. “And it was really about helping to bring out the best in them — it was always from a good place. She just knew how to do it in a way that they could hear it.”
Will Maixner described Johnston as “one of my biggest cheerleaders” who helped him through a challenging moment early in his career. The 2010 MHA graduate met Johnston when he interviewed at her health system for the MHA program’s third-year administrative residency position. He ultimately decided on a different position, which was later cut during the recession.
“Ann encouraged me throughout and did everything in her power to help me find the right place after most sites had already selected candidates,” Maixner recalled in a LinkedIn post. “I hope we can all emulate Ann’s dedication to helping others, especially students. She worked tirelessly and selflessly to ensure her students and team had a foundation to be successful.”
In her personal life, Johnston “blew through novels,” recalled Taubel. She loved musicals and live theater. “And if you had ever been to my mom’s house, you’d see beachwear everywhere. The woman loved the beach,” her daughter said. “If she could get there, she would.” She loved gardening, flowers, “and I come by it honestly,” Taubel says smiling, “she did love a good wine.”
In addition to Taubel, Johnston is survived by her middle son, Eric and oldest son Wesley, along with his wife Jenny and their three daughters. Becca, the youngest, says it is their mom’s independence and determination to succeed no matter the circumstances that will stand as her legacy.
“My mom loved her kids, but also showed us that a career and passion are important. She came from a generation where women weren't always allowed to dream of a career. And she not only dreamed of it — she did it,” Taubel says. “She was a shining testament that it’s never too late.”
A service for Dr. Ann Johnston will be held Saturday, June 18 at 2 p.m.
Historic Christ Church
420 Christ Church Rd.
Weems, Virginia 22576
2:30 p.m.-5 p.m.
34 E. Church St.
Kilmarnock, Virginia 22482
> Ann has asked that gifts be made to VCU Health Administration in her honor. Giving will provide financial assistance for travel to professional association conferences to the MHA, MHA/JD and MHA/MD students enrolled in the MHA Program. To do so, visit our Giving page and select "MHA Professional Development Fund (Endowment gift of MHA Class of 2008 and 2010)."
> Photos: 1st- Johnston receiving her Doctor of Education degree in 2015, and 2nd -Johnston and McClelland on vacation at the beach.