Summer 1997

Bluestone Journal
JMU the way it used to be

by Nancy Bondurant Jones

When Gov. Mills Godwin signed the bill changing the name of Madison College to James Madison University in 1977, one member of the original faculty looked on and beamed approval.

Althea Loose Johnston endorsed this last in a series of amazing changes she'd witnessed since her first September in 1909. Never one to shy from risks, she backed the school's leap to become a first-class regional university.

"First class" was a term that matched her own risk taking. In 1909, with experience limited to two years teaching primary school in Illinois, young Althea Loose hadn't hesitated to accept an offer to teach German, Latin and physical education at the new State Normal and Industrial School at Harrisonburg. And the following summer she attended Columbia University to study PE and upgrade her skills to what she felt they should be.

Aletha Loose Johnston

The gymnasium in those days doubled as an assembly hall, formed by removing a partition between two classrooms of the science building (now Maury Hall). Activity usually consisted of drills with dumbbells, wands and Indian clubs, passing the heavy medicine ball. Sometimes Miss Loose added folk dancing or volleyball. An early proponent of recreational exercise, she also supervised the laying out of three tennis courts and an outdoor basketball court.

In addition to her daily class load, Loose coached intramural basketball for the young ladies in her charge. And James C. Johnston, principal of Harrisonburg High School, often volunteered to referee. More than the game, however, soon caught his eye. The attractive college instructor and eligible bachelor referee managed a circumspect and covert courtship. In the spring of 1911, the two supposedly left for separate Easter vacations. Instead, they met at her uncle's home in Manassas for a secret wedding ceremony. The elopement thrilled the campus - but retired the former instructor.

Four children followed in four years, and Althea stayed at home until 1919, when she again headed the PE department for the grand sum of $1,500 a year. In March, her fifth child was born, but she managed to resume her position as instructor and department head that September and also double her salary. And she instituted varsity basketball in 1921 - a program that just celebrated its 75th anniversary.

In 1925, the team had its first undefeated season - a benchmark she matched in 1929, 1930, 1934, 1935 and 1941. Along the way, Johnston raised her family and returned to Columbia in summers for an M.A. degree. And when she became a single parent after her husband's death in 1929, the forward-thinking "Miz J" balanced her professional and private lives with a grace that inspired her students. She taught them to challenge themselves.

Starting forward Anna Lyons Sullivan recalled only two games lost during her four years playing (1929-32). She said, "One good reason we had a good scoring average was Mrs. Johnston. You just didn't miss shots - she wouldn't put up with it." The team not only went undefeated in Lyons' first year, it also doubled or tripled opponents' scores in seven of eight games.

Between 1921 and 1942 when she stepped down, her tough, risk-taking style had paid off. She compiled a 106-33-5 record.

In 1951, she retired from Madison College and remained a fierce competitor, but at the bridge table instead of the court. Thirty years later Johnston Hall, which had been named for her husband, was renamed the James C. and Althea L. Johnston Hall to honor both husband and wife. That year she also was accorded Educator of the Year by Greater Madison Inc.

One year earlier, in 1980, Johnston gave up driving. She was 94. In October of 1982, her daughter, Jacqueline Rice ('32) and Jacqueline's husband, Thomas, honored the amazing "Miz J" by establishing the Althea L. Johnston Scholarship. On July 22, 1983, she celebrated her 98th birthday. She died in 1984. A final honor followed: She became one of the first women named to the JMU Sports Hall of Fame - an award that distinguished her as an extraordinary role model, a woman of and beyond her time.

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