South Salt Lake residents off to explore America, leave teaching legacy behindAug 05, 2019 11:07AM ● By Julie Slama
Come fall, Riverview Junior High will be without two of the favorite teachers as Johnny and Patti McConnell plan to hit the road on mountain bikes and the rivers in kayaks. (Photo courtesy of Johnny McConnell)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
In the last couple days of school in June, Riverview Junior High students could hear their beloved science teacher, Johnny McConnell recite the words of American musician Jimmy Buffet, “I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.”
This fall, they’ll find Johnny, who has taught 29 years at the school, is doing just that.
Instead of being at the junior high, Johnny and his wife, Patti, who has taught the last 11 of her 27 years at Riverview, cleared out their classrooms, sold their home, bought a 30-foot motorhome, added solar panels, hitched up their jeep nicknamed “Dingy,” and took off to explore America.
That doesn’t mean the McConnells will be sitting in lawn chairs enjoying the sunset in their retirement. Instead, they plan to be on an adventure with their mountain bikes, affectionately called “Betty” and “Fleetwood,” or kayaking, hiking, climbing, whitewater rafting, slacklining — and Johnny isn’t ruling out parachuting.
“I’ll jump out of an airplane, hit the bike trails, explore and be on the edge of the earth,” said the 60-year-old, who was recovering from skin cancer. “Some of it will scare the heck out of me, but you’re supposed to do things that scare you every day. The worst that can happen is that I could die.”
Without any concrete plans other than to visit family in Arizona, Nebraska, Nevada and Maine, and coming back to Utah to have the grandchildren join them on some of their adventures, they want to fill their desires traveling scenic byways to visit national parks during the off-season. They also have plans to snorkel to discover bright fish and coral, swim alongside the dolphins and see the whales in Key West and Baja California.
“I’ve never really been much on the East Coast, never been to the Ozarks, haven’t spent time in New Mexico or Texas — there are a lot of places we’d like to explore,” Patti said.
The idea of living entirely out of a motorhome didn’t faze them.
“We’ve spent six to eight weeks living out of a motorhome every summer,” she said, adding that they did get a 30-foot one, an upgrade from their previous 23-foot home-on-wheels. “We have a bookshelf that will have our atlas, books, scrapbook, packet of family history, and a couple sentimental things like a china bowl from my mom, a wooden cowboy hat that his dad made, and quilts our grandmothers gave us. Beyond that, we just divided other things and gave them to our kids.”
They also put on the market their South Salt Lake home that they designed and had built 11 years ago; it was fondly nicknamed the “MacHouse ’n’ Pub,” as it served as a venue where musicians would play in their basement and expansive yard.
“We’ve had JT Draper; Nathan McEuen, son of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s banjoist, John; Flagship Romance, Julian Moon, The Novelists, Sky Smeed, a lot of musicians come to our home venue and people just pack the basement, about 65 people each night. There’s been a lot of fun concerts, homemade brew and tip jars where these musicians make about $1,000 for each performance,” said Johnny, who added that their home was named “favorite home concert venue of the year” in 2015.
While the couple won’t have their own home concert venue, they will plan to visit others, Johnny said.
“We want to get out there to explore and be off the grid. We don’t do much sitting; we live,” Patti said.
And on about every adventure, they plan to do it as a team.
“I like mountain biking more and she likes the water, kayaking, but we do everything together. We’re best buddies, best friends,” Johnny said. “Our happy place is exploring and seeing the world.”
However, their entire life won’t be completely go-go-go. They may park at a favorite campground to do a little sitting as they will be writing. Patti plans to write a lesson plan curriculum book on digital literacy and Johnny will write a book about his eighth-grade game, “The Rock Pile.”
“It is like ‘Sorry’ or ‘Trouble’ with a rock pile in the middle and it will include the story behind the rocks with it. I’ll include rocks from around the U.S. with different geographical regions, different periods — tie it into history. It will be so cool for kids,” he said.
Those “cool” activities are some of the things former students remember, said Principal Jim Bouwman.
“The kids are going to miss them; they both do a great job,” he said. “Their classes are academically rigorous, but fun. They always have students coming back, remembering their favorite activities with them.”
Even as Johnny, a former South Salt Lake City councilman, talked enthusiastically about his adventures ahead, he looked around the room he designed when the wing was built, a room that explodes with burst of color inspiring junior high kids from the class clown to the nerd, from the smart aleck to the respectful natural leader, he said he would miss teaching.
“I love these kids; they’re in my heart,” he said.
On that June day, he gave one last round of instructions to students who were standing, rather than sitting, at their tables, reminding them the next day was a favorite — the traditional cookie day, where students list their favorite cookies and explain what rocks they resemble.
He also said about 10 students passed their school tradition Rock Ace Test — 25 questions quizzing students about rocks — igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic and more.
“When students get all 25 right, they get their own Rock Ace,” he said about an actual rock painted with the student’s name and year.
From nearly three decades of teaching, a few of the 170 Rock Ace recipients’ pictures still hung on the walls. His rock specimens from around the U.S. were still displayed alongside a smiley face rock trophy indicating #1 teacher, but otherwise collections and teaching mementos were being packed up, leaving the classroom bare.
On those former classroom walls, Johnny’s inspiration to students will remain, as will his legacy, with the painted words: “Science Rocks: If I can read, write and do math, I can do almost anything.”