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Johnson Middle School still going strong after 43 years

June 27, 2010

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“WEST JUNIOR HIGH OPENS” read the prominent front page headline of The Walpole Times on March 2, 1967. The West Junior High School had indeed opened, several months behind the originally-planned schedule, but capable of holding up to 900 students. Today, the West Junior High School at 111 Robbins Road is known as Johnson Middle School.

The school’s first principal was Mr. J. Chauncey Smith, a graduate of Boston College and a teacher in the Walpole school system since 1955. Smith is still alive today, and recently had a softball field named after him. He was ready to take on the challenge of running the new school, even as Robbins Road itself had not been completely built yet. The road at the time did not go all the way from Pemberton Street to Elm Street, and the new principal told the Times that he “requested that vehicles enter Robbins Road from Route 27 since the further end of the street has not been completed and there is not enough room for two buses to pass.”

The school cost around $2 million to construct, and when completed had 33 classrooms, an auditorium for seating 425 people, a cafeteria for 550, a library for 15,000 books, and, notably, three fully-equipped science labs. Mr. Smith was extremely pleased with the new labs, telling the Times “some forward-thinking on the part of the building committee has allowed us to get away from a demonstration science program and begin development of a laboratory-oriented program.”

The school had been intended to be opened in September 1966, but a building delay caused the opening to be ultimately pushed to the following February. Initially, it was to serve students from fifth through ninth grades from Walpole Center and West and North Walpole. During its 40 year history, however, the school has had students in every grade from fourth through ninth. In fact, at one point, the school had 4th-8thgraders all at once.

About a year after its opening, Boston-area architectural photographer Phokion Karas, who died last year, took pictures of the building’s exterior and interior. These pictures spent decades collecting dust in a portfolio in the school’s media center before being discovered by a student a few years ago. The pictures are believed to have not been viewed in years, however they have been scanned and are exclusively located here.

After Chauncey Smith moved on to fill other roles in the Walpole school system and in the community, Richard Sullivan took over as principal. After Sullivan left, Steven Driscoll took over, before Wayne Kivi. Kivi was a popular principal who was missed when he left in 2001. After Kivi’s departure, three separate principals have worked at Johnson, in this order: Jean Krim, Sherry Biss, and Sandy Esmond.

The school was renamed to the Eleanor Neal Johnson Middle School in 1981, in memory of Eleanor N. Johnson who served the town as a Selectwoman, School Committee member, and active citizen and parent. The name change also marked a change in school philosophies, as “Junior High School”s across the country morphed into “middle schools.”

Special thanks to longtime Johnson Middle School/West Junior High School teachers for contributing their knowledge to my ongoing research of the school’s history. This was a personal research project I started in seventh grade as a student at JMS with a great teacher, Barry MacNutt, who retired a few years ago after teaching at JMS since the early 1970s. Other great resources over the years have included the daughter of Eleanor Neal Johnson, Carol Johnson; West Junior High alumnus and current town Assistant Recreation Coordinator Joe Donnelly; and other now-retired JMS teachers like Tom Monaghan and Paul Sowden.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 9, 2017 8:39 PM

    Wow! Thanks for posting these. These pictures really jived my memory as it looked very much as how I remembered it (i went there in the 80s). I still have in my room a small bookcase that was made in that wood shop.
    The school was very typical mid-century design, but the windows in the hallways that overlooked the gym were a neat feature. Played many basketball games in there. I seem to recall the lowest, basement floor was this maze of half-dark corridors—very unusual design, but cool at the same time. I wonder how it looks now, as I haven’t been inside in at least 25 years or so…

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