NORFOLK, Neb. – While Marlene Johnson achieved a successful career without college, that didn’t diminish the importance she places on higher education.
The retired mayor of West Point was honored recently by Northeast Community College for distinguished service.
The award is given to individuals who have demonstrated active service to higher education and who have played a significant role in the development of Northeast.
Johnson was instrumental in getting the distance learning center in West Point built. She was the first woman to serve as mayor of the community and ended up being the longest serving mayor in the city’s history, serving 20 years. She also served on the League of Nebraska Municipalities, including 2013 when she was elected president of the statewide organization.
Leah Barrett, president of Northeast Community College, said when Northeast was looking for a place to host college classes permanently in West Point, Johnson was mayor. Barrett said Johnson has been a strong believer in having high school students be able to take advantage of college classes to help their transition to college.
Northeast opened the classrooms in the Donald Nielsen Center in April 2018. Today, there are more than 150 students who attend classes from Northeast and Wayne State College at that facility every day.
Marlene and her husband, Allen, owned and operated the Sandman Motel in West Point. Later, the Johnsons owned and operated a grain handling equipment business and Marlene was officer manager.
“I want to share this honor with the community of West Point and everyone beyond the city limits of West Point and everyone for their monetary support from a lot of people and to make this connection with Northeast Community College and the success story that it has become,” Johnson said.
Johnson herself took classes from Northeast before the Nielsen Center had opened. Classes were held at various locations, and she and others wanted to have them available in one building.
“So, Northeast became a very welcome part of West Point,” Johnson said. “When Northeast asked about adding additional classrooms, we purchased the lots across the street and built the new facility here.”
The result has been that students are now coming to town to start their college education during their senior year in high school, helping to save on tuition.
“There are several that I recently talked to recently who have just finished their first year of college at Northeast Community College in West Point. For financial reasons, that’s very good for them. So many students get lost in that first year of college because there is so much going on and they are away from home for the first time,” Johnson said.
Surrounding high school students also are coming to West Point now to take classes.
“It has been a really great benefit for us in West Point, and all the other schools taking part, saving their parents a lot of money. It gives them a great start on their college degree.”
Johnson did not attend college.
“It just did not work out for me growing up,” she said. “Grants and loans were not available, and my parents couldn’t afford to send me. I always wanted to be in finance. I’m a numbers person and I wanted to be in a financial field.”
Johnson said her father was an important part of her education. He was a parochial school teacher, and while some of the other students said she was the “teacher’s pet,” it was not true.
“He never helped me with my classes. I had to get it all on my own, which was probably good. It taught me to take care of myself and learn the things that I needed to do.”
Johnson’s family includes two sons, Alen and Brian and their families; along with four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
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Marlene Johnson, the retired mayor of West Point, was honored for distinguished service during the recent Northeast Community College Foundation Achievement Awards ceremony. Also shown (from left) are Tracy Kruse, vice president of Development & External Affairs, and President Leah Barrett.