Students and faculty at Lincoln and Berg Elementary Schools in Dickinson grieved Monday for a teacher who touched lives in Dickinson as well as on the other side of the world.
Johanna Njos was described by her co-workers as an adored teacher who devoted her life and career to serving others.
The 30-year-old educator who oversaw the gifted-and-talented program at the two schools, died Saturday afternoon when her car was struck by an oncoming semi truck after it slid into the opposite lane on ice-covered Highway 85 while attempting to negotiate a curve west of Amidon.
“There have been many tears and sadness,” said Tammy Praus, the principal at Lincoln Elementary School.
Njos, who taught 32 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, was hired by Dickinson Public Schools in 2006 after graduating from Dickinson State University.
From her first day, staff members said they could tell she was going to be a special teacher.
“If there was one teacher that would impact (students) throughout their whole life, it would be her,” said Janet Heidt, a Lincoln library worker who shared a room with Njos.
Njos touched lives with an infectious smile and sense of humor that teachers and parents said helped make learning fun for students.
“She just let their personality shine through when she worked with her students because they each have their own strengths,” said Peggy Heidt, the lunch secretary at Lincoln, whose daughter Rebecca was taught by Njos. “My daughter just felt really comfortable in that setting with her. She always felt challenged, but also very comfortable.”
A lasting memory
Dickinson Public Schools sent its entire elementary counseling staff to Lincoln and Berg on Monday to help grieving students and faculty.
Students who would have typically met with Njos for classes spoke about their teacher with a counselor and made cards in her honor. Each student at Lincoln made a card and signed their names on a poster hanging on a wall outside of Praus’ office.
One card, written by a student named Jacob, read: “I hope you are happy in heaven. You were a super fun teacher.” Another, from Jaiden, said: “You were so great. Why did you have to die?”
Praus said she immediately noticed how the counseling and cards helped students.
“There was a lot of sadness, but as soon as the students started to process and talk about Miss Njos, they couldn’t help but smile,” Praus said. “Even though they were sad, they couldn’t help but smile because she was such a wonderful, warm person.”
Fourth-grader Brodie Eckert and third-grader Grant Bittner said they’ll most miss Njos’ smile.
“She always helped me when I needed help,” Eckert said.
Bittner added: “She could always answer the questions that we asked.”
Njos taught both Grant Bittner and his brother, first-grader Owen. Grant Bittner said as he cried about his teacher’s death with his parents on Sunday, his brother used Legos to build a model of Njos’ classroom.
“She’s one of those people that you’re just thankful touched your kids’ lives,” said Andrea Bittner, their mother.
Lincoln teachers said Njos challenged her students in the classroom and did the same to her co-workers. Though they described Njos as soft spoken, they said she was also a practical joker who often surprised her co-workers.
“You would never have suspected her,” Lincoln third-grade teacher Leah Campbell said with a smile.
Educating the world
In November 2010, Njos and her sister, Angela, traveled to Ethiopia with the volunteer group Adoption Advocates International. There, they helped Ethiopian children who were transitioning from orphanages into group houses so they could be adopted by American families.
Njos took with her “books” that students had written and illustrated for the Ethiopian children to read.
A second trip to Africa last year resulted in Njos fundraising to help build a well for one of the villages she visited that didn’t have fresh drinking water. She simply asked her students to donate to a change jar.
Today, a photo of children drinking from the village’s new well hangs in Lincoln’s main hallway.
“That’s the kind of person she was,” Peggy Heidt said. “She was always over and above.”
Ellen Njos, Johanna’s mother, said representatives from Slope Electric Cooperative told her Monday that they will be setting up a memorial fund in her daughter’s name that will go toward Missionaries of the Poor, an organization in which Johanna and her father, John Lee Njos, were involved. They visited Jamaica two years ago through the organization to work at a school and an orphanage for disabled children.
Ellen Njos said Johanna had planned to return to Africa this summer to teach students for five weeks and was debating on staying in the country to work full time for an American-based organization.
“She was just such a beautiful girl,” Ellen Njos said. “She’s always had such a big, compassionate heart and a love for children. Children were her pride and her joy. I think that’s why she felt so called to the poor and the needy.”
‘She’s in heaven’
Njos was raised on her families’ ranch outside of Rhame and graduated from Rhame High School in 2001. Though Njos lived in Dickinson, she traveled home frequently.
“She loved country life, she loved the ranch, she loved nature,” Ellen Njos said. “She was a very creative person. I think that it was just her getaway. She really wasn’t comfortable with city life. She loved her kids, but she didn’t like the commotion of the city.”
According to the North Dakota Highway Patrol, wind was blowing wet snow across Highway 85 as Njos was attempting to negotiate a left-hand curve while traveling toward Bowman at about 3:15 p.m. Saturday.
Her car, a 2009 Ford Fusion, slipped into the oncoming lane of traffic, where it was struck by a 2002 Mack semi hauling a flatbed trailer driven by 55-year-old Pedro A. Hernandez of Perryton, Texas. The NDHP stated in the accident report that Hernandez was unable to take evasive actions and avoid the collision. He struck the passenger side of Njos’ car and both vehicles went into the south ditch of the highway.
Ellen Njos said her daughter was likely killed instantly.
“I know she’s in heaven,” Ellen Njos said. “I don’t even question it. I’ve never seen a girl so in love with the Lord and want to do his will. That was her life. I don’t question it. She just loved Him dearly. I know she’s happy. I know she’s at peace.”
Praus said most faculty members from Lincoln and Berg will take a school bus to Bowman for a rosary and wake service at 7 p.m. today at St. Charles Catholic Church. Njos’ funeral Mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Students will hold a memorial at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, where they will release helium balloons with hand-written notes to Njos inside.
Praus said while she and others are grieving the loss of a friend, they can’t help but smile while remembering Njos.
“What a loss it is for us here, but what a gain it is for heaven,” Praus said.