Alnah Johnston was born and spent her early years in her paternal grandmother’s house in Portland, ME. She was named after her mother but never liked her name as a child. Her mother was named after friends of her parents, Albert and Hannah, and their combined names made Alnah. Mrs. Johnston’s paternal grandfather was a ship builder in a little seaside New England village near Portland. Her grandmother said that he died of a broken heart when his last ship, the one into which he had put his fortune, sank in a storm during its maiden voyage. Although her grandfather’s shipyard had disappeared long ago, Mrs. Johnston loved to watch the five- and six-masted schooners sail into Portland Harbor. She often dreamed of sailing to the Orient where her Uncle Heyward was the physician to the King of Siam, a country known as Thailand since 1939.
Mrs. Johnston went to Wellesley College and graduated in 1918. She began teaching literature at the Bennett School in Millbrook, NY. She learned from a friend about a teaching position in the English Department of Yenching’s Women College in Peking [now Beijing], China, sponsored by Wellesley College. She was intrigued by the idea of teaching in China and applied for the position. While waiting to hear if her application was accepted, Mrs. Johnston played the role of Haemon in a production of Antigone at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York. She received an excellent review in the New York Times and could easily have embarked on a career in the theater. When her acceptance letter came from China, however, she had no trouble deciding whether or not to go. In a letter to her parents, she said, “I believe that there is nothing that could possibly contribute more to my life than three years in Peking.” Mrs. Johnston’s childhood dream came true when, in the summer of 1923, she sailed for Peking from Seattle.
The Beijing that Mrs. Johnston knew was a city of great contrasts. Gentlemen in silk gowns rode comfortably in rickshaws while the coolies strained to pull their heavy carts. There were telephones, electric lights, and telegraphs lines connecting China to the world while at the same time camels carried coal from the hills and men carried heavy loads from shoulder poles. The beauty of the country with its unique architecture, its delicate art and philosophy, and the delightful sense of humor and courteous gentleness of its people made an indelible impression on Mrs. Johnston. She felt that “fulfillment will come to those who dare to follow the beckoning of opportunities that are bound to come to them…” At Yenching University Mrs. Johnston not only taught English but also was in charge of the dramatic presentations and put on festive Chinese plays that had been translated by her students. Mrs. Johnston met her husband George, a banker with the International Banking Corporation, at a house party and his charming manner impressed her immediately. They married in Hong Kong and then boarded the S.S. Esquilino and spent six months traveling back to the United States.
Mrs. Johnston arrived at Dana in 1938 and was Dana’s fourth principal. She had an inauspicious beginning. The Hurricane of 1938 raged outside with a howling wind and the almost deafening sound of crashing trees while she was conducting her first faculty meeting in the living room of the old Dana Main building. The next day Grove Street was a disaster area, impassable as a result of the broken tree limb debris. Mrs. Johnston led the school through many hard times, including the economic depression of the 1930s and World War II. Even with hardships of food and gas rationing, limited travel, and cold classrooms, Mrs. Johnston was able to show the students and faculty how to enjoy their lives. Every Friday night was a festive occasion to celebrate having sufficient food, a safe shelter, and family and friends. Faculty and housemothers came to dinner in long dresses and students wore their best dresses. After dinner, coffee was served in the living room, where lively conversation took place. Then everyone went to Bardwell to have their spirits lifted by seeing a great performer. On one memorable night, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke on her work as a United States delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.
Mrs. Johnston took the first steps to change Dana Hall from a conventional boarding school of the 19th century to a modern educational institution known and respected around the world. Partly due to World War II and partly due to her connection to China, Mrs. Johnston opened the enrollment of Dana to more international students. Through her friendship with Reverend Howard Thurman, a theologian and civil rights activist, she also brought the first African-American student to Dana. She was the first to allow seniors to drop regular classes in order to pursue independent studies. She was ahead of her time when she lobbied nearby colleges to allow qualified Dana seniors to take freshman college courses for credit. Dating regulations and permission to go into the Village [Wellesley] were liberalized. Parlor chaperones were no longer necessary when boys came to visit on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. She also changed student government to allow for greater student participation.
In the 1940s, Mrs. Johnston began planning for new buildings at Dana. She realized that to compete with other educational institutions such as Andover and Exeter, Dana had to have modern and fireproof facilities. The land around the pond was recommended as the site for the new Dana Hall. In 1955, the trustees gave active support to the Building Fund and began to formulate building plans. This decision was a turning point in the history of the school. The Classroom Building was dedicated on June 1956, the seventy-fifth anniversary of Dana. At the dedication, Judge Dewing, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, addressed Mrs. Johnston and said, “This new Classroom Building is the result of your dream. You were not satisfied with dreaming. You worked energetically and inspired others to work with you.”
There were many other firsts during Mrs. Johnston’s administration. The Dana Hall Bulletin began in 1938, and 1941 saw the publication of the first Dana Hall in the Colleges, which contained information about college admission requirements and records of Dana Hall School alumnae in college. In 1939, Mrs. Johnston replaced TKD, a senior council, with a student government where the president was elected by the entire student body. The Parent-Teacher Association, started in 1940, sponsored a formal dance for the entire school each year and took over Dana Hall Night at the Pops, a successful fundraiser for the Building Fund. In 1942 the May Day tradition began. The identity of the May Queen was a secret until the last moment and her court was composed of seniors. The Father’s Day tradition was started on April 19, 1950 with thirty-two fathers coming from five states. In 1957 Dana Hallmanac was revived and in 1958 Far Eastern Studies, a full-credit course on the history and cultures of the Orient, was offered.
Alnah James Johnston retired in June of 1962 after 24 years at Dana. The award-winning Johnston Hall, built in 1965, was named in her honor. In 1976, she published The Footprints of the Pheasant in the Snow, a fascinating memoir of her years teaching in China. Alnah James Johnston was truly the First Lady of Dana Hall.