'My Classroom Always Felt Like Home': After 30+ Years At Walsingham, Mary Johnston Retires

After a nearly 40-year career, the vast majority of which she spent at Walsingham Academy, beloved teacher Mrs. Mary Johnston has retired.

 “Mary is a great woman, a dear friend, and a magnificent teacher and administrator,” Walsingham Academy President Sister Mary Jeanne Oesterle said. “She’s a living example of the meaning of Mercy Education—dignity, respect and love for all people, especially children. I know Mary was so proud to follow her mother’s example. She will always have a second home here at Walsingham Academy.”

Like mother, like daughter

The story of Walsingham Academy over the last several decades cannot be properly told without including Mary and her family.

Mary’s time at Walsingham began as a student when she was in kindergarten. She attended the Academy through high school. When Mary was in school, the Lower School building included grades K through six, a well-populated convent and a hallway of boarding students.

“I was mesmerized by the Sisters of Mercy in their long habits,” Mary said. “I desperately wanted to be a boarder but my mother pointed out that the five-minute drive to our house made that seem ridiculous.”

Mary’s mother, Mrs. Margaret Webb, began teaching 6th grade at Walsingham in 1964 when Mary was in first grade. Mrs. Webb taught mostly social studies, even working closely with a specialist at Colonial Williamsburg to create innovative learning opportunities for her students. When computers began to arrive in schools, Mrs. Webb took a class at William & Mary and opened the Lower School’s computer lab.

“She was in her sixties by that time and not afraid of a challenge,” Mary said.

Mrs. Webb would retire in 1997.

Coming home

After a few years teaching in Georgia, Mary would return to Williamsburg in 1986 to start the pre-K program at Walsingham. Beginning in 1994, she would teach second grade for 14 years before moving to third grade.

In 2012, Mary started working in administration and served as the Lower School director from 2014 to 2018. She would return to the third grade classroom in order to spend more time with her mother during her final years.

Mary said it has been a joy and a privilege to watch students grow and graduate from the Academy.

“The year that my first pre-K class graduated from the Upper School reminded me of the sense of family that a pre-K through 12 school provides.”

Mary’s sons graduated from Walsingham and she now has a grandson in middle school.

Upper School director and friend of Mary, Mrs. Angie Baker, says that Walsingham has been extremely blessed to have had Mary has part of the community for so many years.

“It was my pleasure to work alongside Mary as an administrator and to, more recently, have had the joy of having my own child in her third grade class,” Mrs. Baker said. “Her love for each child and recognition of the individual gifts and challenges bestowed upon them is above and beyond in every way imaginable. She really is that good! I have always admired Mary's commitment to the Mercy charism. It is evident that her own education experience at Walsingham left a deep sense of gratitude and commitment to service that has benefited so many students over the years. I am honored to have her as a friend and mentor.”

The next chapter

Mary plans to spend retirement enjoying the natural beauty of the Virginia mountains. Her parents grew up in the mountains and she loved spending her time with family in the Appalachians. Mary and her husband, Ken, plan to build a new home where they will welcome family, friends, and dogs.

“Walsingham Academy gave me a place to teach children in a way that is meaningful and fulfilling,” Mary said. “I have been inspired by so many dedicated colleagues—especially my mom—and many of them became my dearest friends. It has been so special teaching the children of former classmates and the children of colleagues. The atmosphere at Walsingham supports joyful learning and my classroom always felt like home. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to work with children and learn from them each day.”