He left the U, but 65 years later, gives back

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February 23, 2004 // UPDATED 9:16 am - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Elliot Park's Harvey R. Johnson, 83, establishes the first University of Minnesota fund for students with disabilities

Debilitating epileptic seizures prompted Harvey R. Johnson to leave the University of Minnesota after only one year of study, but the 83-year-old still feels connected to the institution.

The Elliot Park resident, a former dockworker and maintenance man, has led an effort to establish a scholarship fund for students with disabilities who attend the university. To date, the scholarship fund has about $12,000, said Evonne Bilotta, a sign language interpreter at the university who serves on the committee overseeing the scholarship money.

The fund, known as the Marshall Access Education Fund, needs about $25,000 total to become a full-fledged scholarship fund, she said.

If Johnson and other fund-raisers raise enough for scholarships, the fund will be the first in university history geared specifically toward students with disabilities.

Bilotta said Johnson's efforts have inspired another university donor to establish a similar fund. The donor, whom she would not identify, was surprised to learn no scholarships were specifically set aside for students with disabilities, she said.

The university has 1,000 registered students with disabilities, meaning those students came forward and notified Disability Services of their conditions. Bilotta said she suspects there are more disabled students on campus who forgo registering because of societal stigma.

The fund started up at Johnson's 50th reunion for the 1939 graduates of Marshall High School. In the '30s and '40s, all Minneapolis high school students with disabilities attended Marshall. The school's Dinkytown site is now home to the University Technology Center.

Besides scholarships, the university is considering targeting the endowment toward a new writing lab equipped with technology to assist blind students and those with psychiatric conditions who need special accommodations, Bilotta said.

For Johnson, the scholarship fund-raising campaign is about raising awareness that students with disabilities have significant academic potential.

"Many people don't think they have the full capacity or the intellect that a normal person does. But I've seen so many with real brainpower," he said. "I only want the satisfaction that so many people see the need for disabled students who have brilliant minds to have the opportunity for education."

He pointed to a friend with cerebral palsy who invented a talking board to help him communicate with others.

Johnson has led a full and engaging life for someone who was convinced as a young man that one of his epileptic seizures would kill him.

He was in his early 20s when the seizures were most serious. Once he had six seizures in one day. He recalled asking his mother to call a pastor to their house on Como Avenue -- about 10 blocks north of the university campus. He credits his Christian faith and prayer with keeping him healthy over the years.

His epileptic episodes were dormant for decades after he married his wife, Audrey. He had his most recent seizure two years ago.

After leaving the university, he worked the night shift washing dishes at an old restaurant on Lake Street, known as the Hasty Tasty, and then moved on to Northwest Terminal Company, working on a loading dock in Northeast Minneapolis. Then he worked for Lindsay Brothers, a wholesale farm implement supply company, and then moved on to work for Northwest Airlines.

Later, he took at job at the IDS Center, 80 S. 8th St., on the maintenance crew. He cleaned the main lobby and cleared litter from the sidewalk in front of Downtown's tallest building.

Johnson retired in 1983 and has since become more involved in his Elliot Park neighborhood, on the southeast corner of Downtown where I-35W and I-94 merge. He helps residents with snow blowing and tree trimming. He also spends time visiting people in the Augustana nursing home, 1007 E. 14th St. and enjoys putting together jigsaw puzzles. He lives in an apartment with his wife at Augustana Apartments, 1510 11th Ave. S.

For more information on the scholarship fund, contact Disability Services at 626-1333 (voice/TTY) or online at ds.umn.edu/maef.

To donate, send a check to the Marshall Access & Education Fund at Disability Services, 230 McNamara Alumni Center, 200 Oak St. SE.,

Minneapolis, MN 55455 or donate online at ds.umn.edu/maef.