For Ed Johnson, 79 and a half, retirement has never been about relaxing and taking it easy. It’s been all about helping others. In fact, his wife of 56 years, Pat, even calls him “Saint Edward.”
But Ed was helping people long before he retired. He spent his career in education as a teacher and principal. Then in 1995, at the age of 52, Ed decided to retire after 30 years of service.
His father had died at the age of 52 of heart disease and Ed wasn’t quite sure how much time he had. “I didn’t have any plans after 52 and I thought I might not be around to make any plans,” Ed said.
But that quickly changed.
He took a part-time job at the University of Maryland College Park working with student teachers as a field-based instructor. Working 2 to 3 days a week gave him more time to pursue his many interests and spend more time with his family.
“It was like opening a door to many possibilities,” Ed said.
He stayed there for another 20 years and was proud to have the opportunity to mentor so many teachers. The last 10 years he worked with masters-level students. “Working with them was a breeze,” said Ed.
Then, at the age of 72, he retired, retired. “My supervisor asked me, “why are you retiring, don’t you like teachers or the principals or something?'” Ed said. “I said, no they’re great. I just need a change.”
That change was to do more of what he was already doing.
His Passion for Patapsco Park
Ed has always had an interest in nature and the environment. Twenty-five years ago, after his initial retirement, he began working as a volunteer at Patapsco Valley State Park. He would help clear trails and do general work in the park. “I wanted to follow up with my interest in environmental education,” Ed said.
He then became a volunteer ranger for 16 years “As a volunteer ranger, you wear a uniform and are the eyes and ears of the park rangers,” he said. His work included monitoring various areas of the park, staffing the entrance areas and conducting history walks.
He recently went back to being a volunteer. “I still do a lot of what I was doing as a volunteer ranger — monitoring area of the park, doing history walks, art programs. whatever needs to be done,” Ed said.
COVID created even more of a need for Ed’s time. “The park used to average a million visitors a year, ” Ed said, “but during COVID they averaged 2.6 million visitors a year. It was crowded in there.”
On Saturdays, Ed sets up a table in the Orange Grove section of the park near the Swinging Bridge. He brings a large binder with pictures and fun facts to teach kids and adults about the history of the park. “I like to show the kids, particularly the girls, how they would have had to dress if they were here in 1911,” Ed said.
In fact, Ed had become such as expert on the history of the park that he was asked to collaborate with Betsy McMillion to write a book about the park’s history.
After 3 and a half years of research, the book was published by Arcadia Publishing in the Spring of 2019. “Images of America: Patapsco Valley State Park” recounts the history of Patapsco from the 1600s to present day. All of the money from the sale of the book goes to support the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park who support the maintenance of the park. He and Betsy don’t make any money from the sale of the book.
Ed recounts a story about when the book was first released. He and his co-author had a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City. He said, “They called to say that they had 60 copies and asked if that would be enough,” Ed said. “There had been a great deal of publicity and I thought they should order more.” That day Barnes & Noble had 105 copies on hand and sold 104. The book is still on sale at Barnes & Noble as well as through other vendors.
“People are fascinated with many aspects of the park including the Swinging Bridge and floods. They know a little bit about (Tropical Storm) Agnes in 1972,” Ed said. He also talks about the firsts of the park including the B&O railroad, the Thomas Viaduct and the first female ranger in Maryland who worked at Patapsco.
For those interested he is also doing a history powerpoint with the Arbutus library on October 8th at 2 p.m. He has done similar talks at libraries and senior centers throughout the area.
Exploring His Creativity Through Painting
But working at the park is not the only activity that keeps Ed busy. He is also an accomplished artist who has won numerous awards. However, Ed got into painting accidentally in 1976.
“The elementary school where I was principal had a large Hispanic population. I decided to brush up on his Spanish,” Ed said. He went to sign up for a night course, but found that it had been cancelled. He needed to do something besides work so he started taking a night school art class taught by a local high school teacher, Keith Lauer. “That’s when I got started with painting,” Ed said.
Ed found he had a real talent for painting and continued taking courses through other local studios.
Once he was retired, he was able to spend more time painting and even began teaching. “I replicated his (Keith Lauer’s) style when I started with a class at our senior center,” Ed said. Each class started with a 15 minute lecture on composition or color. “Each week you would get a little bit more information and after a while you would learn a lot,” Ed said.
He began teaching a class at his local senior center which then morphed into an art group that still meets every Friday. He has also taught classes at the local men’s shelter to give the men an outlet for their feelings. “Some of them aren’t that interested, but others are,” Ed said.
Ed also combines his volunteer activities at the park with his love of art. He sets up painting sessions at the park where he provides all the supplies. The sessions are for people 8-years-old and older.
As part of this activity, Ed provides a folder with 200 nature-related pictures that people can choose from to paint. All the pictures are for 16×20 canvasses. There is a grid on the picture and the canvas so students can replicate the shape of the animal and be pretty accurate. Because of COVID, Ed was not able to have sessions with the public this year, but he was able to have a class with a group of seniors who do a lot with the park.
Personally, Ed has painted numerous painting through the years. Many of his paintings are of nature, birds, flowers and people. These painting have been displayed in art exhibits and have won many awards throughout the state of Maryland.
Serving Through Mission Trips
Ed has another passion project besides painting and working in the park. Since 2004, he has gone to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota for 15 times (except when the trip was cancelled due to COVID). He was able to go back again this year in June.
Ed and a small group of volunteers from Catonsville United Methodist Church began going to the reservation to make repairs on homes and help in any way they could. Before COVID, they also had a food program preparing over 250 hot breakfasts and hot lunches for those in need. Now, most of the work centers around making repairs around the reservation. This year they spent their time at the reservation building a handicap ramp.
Ed has many stories about the amazing people he met on the reservation including Lakota chef Seth Larvie who created tasty meals for the residents. Ed also developed a long-term friendship with Roy Spotted War Bonnet. Ed was looking forward to seeing his friend on this trip, but found out that he had passed away during the pandemic.
Ed has been struck by the difficult lives of the people on the reservation and feels it’s important to spend both his time and money making their lives better. He recently recorded his stories about his experiences and the people he met during his trips in a personal memoir.
The Best Part of Retirement
For Ed, one of the greatest pleasures retirement brought him has been time with his family. His granddaughter was born the year he retired and he was able to take care of her one day a week. As she grew, he took her to her riding lessons and she became an accomplished equestrian.
He was also able to spend more time with his two sons. He and his son Adam took a canoe trip on the Potomac from Point of Rocks, MD. His other son enjoyed playing baseball and Ed was able to attend the games.
And he and Pat made a point to travel. They traveled quite a bit including throughout the United States, Europe and Canada. He also went with a group to the Galapagos Islands.
His Advice to Others
What Ed likes most about retirement is the flexibility. “I was working in a job where I was in the school at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave until 5:30 or so,” Ed said. “I couldn’t take off to run errands. I had no flexibility.” When he retired all that changed. “So when I retired I had flexibility to pursue hobbies like painting and the outdoor stuff and I had time to do things with my family.”
But Ed knows everyone is not ready to retire at 52. “Retire when you’re ready. You know better than anyone else when the time is right,” Ed said. However, he warns, “Don’t retire to nothing. Retire to something you are really interested in.”
He recommends working as a volunteer. “You can help somebody and you can make a difference.” He also says it’s a great way to try things and see what you enjoy.
“Certain things will work out. Certain things won’t So then, you move on and try something different. Look for new opportunities and try them out,” Ed said.
However, he warns that it’s important to not be too structured. He was able to take care of unexpected opportunities such as writing the book and going to the reservation because he kept his schedule flexible.
This summer Ed has had to spend time doing something he is not used to doing — sitting down. He came home from the reservation with a bad cough and then had a leg injury and shoulder surgery. Now, he is happy to be getting back to his regular busy schedule.
He and Pat are going to the gym together five mornings a week at 6 a.m. and they also volunteer to serve lunch to the community on Wednesdays at Catonsville United Methodist Church.
For Ed, retirement has opened up a world of opportunities that he never would have time for if he was still working full-time. He said he never regrets making the decision to retire.
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