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School Rallies for Teacher : Staff Returns Favors, Assists Family of New Mother in 8-Week-Long Stateof Unconsciousness


IRVINE — For years, whenever someone at Culverdale Elementary School had a birthday, it was Jill Johnston who made sure there was a cake.

At the end of each school year, Johnston was the one to thank the secretaries and the principal on behalf of her colleagues.

And whenever someone was in the hospital, the longtime second-grade teacher was in charge of selecting a special get-well gift.

But now, the Culverdale staff is scrambling to return the favors: During the ninth month of her second pregnancy, Johnston's heart stopped, and though doctors were able to revive her long enough for her son, Dean, to be born healthy, the 37-year-old Irvine woman has failed to regain consciousness at Hoag Hospital for the past eight weeks.

Teachers have taken turns baby-sitting, gardening and grocery shopping for Johnston's husband, Jim, and their 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Janelle. Tuesday, there will be a fund-raising ice cream social at Culverdale in Johnston's honor.

"This staff is like a family, a giant family," said Principal Tom Perrie. "It's just incredible the extra hours people put in. They've pitched in just like they were family."

Jim Johnston said Friday night that he was "eternally grateful" for the assistance from teachers and students.

"I would never be able to say 'thank you' to all those very loving, caring people," Johnston said. "But this shows that when people are needed, they rise to the occasion." Reared in Arcadia, Jill Johnston graduated from Cal State Long Beach. Her first job was in Whittier, but since 1979, she has been at Culverdale, first teaching fifth grade, and then second grade for the past 11 years.

Her husband recently earned his teaching credential and this fall is in front of a fifth-grade classroom in Temecula for the first time. The Johnstons celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary shortly after Jill was hospitalized.

At Culverdale, Johnston is revered as a hard-working teacher who disciplines children with love and helps fellow teachers with support and a sense of humor. She is also known as a health nut, advising colleagues on what to eat, leading body movement classes and doing jumping jacks alongside the little ones.

"She had a spirit to her," said Linda Gersten, who teaches second grade with Johnston. "You could see it in her eyes. There was a bright sparkle always there. She had a lot of energy."

Most years, Johnston organized a patriotic play saluting famous Americans to help teach the youngsters civic pride.

And for ages, she has been a regular on the social committee, handling the unpopular task of buying gifts and planning parties for staff birthdays and other such occasions.

"Nothing was halfway with Jill . . . whether it be that social committee or that play we were putting on, or a lesson she was teaching, she did it all," said Joan Bentley, a fellow teacher and longtime friend of Johnston. "She was very dedicated to teaching. She would spend hours after school preparing her lessons. She was usually the last one to leave in the evenings.

"We don't have any walls between our rooms (and) she's always been right across from me," Bentley said softly. "I just miss her presence, I guess."

Because she flutters her eyelids in response to certain impulses, Johnston is not considered to be in a coma, friends said. Hoag Hospital declined to release any medical information about her, other than to say that she is in stable condition.

Doctors believe her chances of recovery are improved if she is surrounded by familiar things and people, so her husband visits several times a day, thanks to the baby-sitting provided by teachers and members of the Lake Hills Community Church in Laguna Hills, where the Johnstons attend.

Several teachers also stop by the hospital when they can. Jim Johnston has even rigged the family's telephone answering machine so that loved ones can leave special messages to be played by her hospital bed.

Johnston said he also talks to his wife constantly, hoping that she will awake from her "long sleep."

"I want to inspire her to revive," he said. "I know her the best. I tell her things that are tender to her. I played a tape of our wedding recently and during the part when I gave my vows, I repeated mine. She made the facial grimace as if she was crying, and tears rolled out her eyes.

"I'm taking one day at a time," Johnston said. "When you see that your wife is dying in your arms, and has to go through the trauma that she has gone through, you have to accept the ups and downs. But we're committed for life, in sickness and in health. I'll never give up. Never give up, especially when you love someone."

The school's Parent-Teachers Assn. organized Tuesday night's social, where $1 of every $1.50 worth of ice cream sold will go to the Johnston family. Johnston's former students and the current second-graders are making decorations for the party, to be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Culverdale, 2 Paseo Westpark, Irvine.

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