Gary Johnson was teaching math and business in 1968 in his hometown of Humboldt, Minn., when the school superintendent asked if he could help teach firearms safety.
Fifty years later, Johnson still teaches firearms safety—and has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
Teaching the course has been a good fit, he says.
"I've been in a family that hunts ever since I was born," Johnson, 79, said Thursday. "I love the outdoors. I've been raised on a farm so it just kind of comes naturally."
Plus, he said, "I still can outwalk most of my family" during deer season.
A semi-retired farmer, Johnson, of Humboldt, in mid-July was presented with an engraved watch from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for his 50 years of volunteer commitment to teaching firearms safety.
DNR Conservation Officer Jeremy Woinarowicz presented the watch to Johnson during the field day the longtime instructor hosts on his farm for students upon completion of the classroom portion of the course.
"I hadn't even thought about it being 50 years at that time, but I knew I was getting close," Johnson said.
In 14 years as a conservation officer, Woinarowicz says Johnson only is the second firearms safety instructor he's presented with a 50-year award. The first, also from Kittson County, was Odeen Anderson of Lake Bronson, Minn., who died in January 2016.
Woinarowicz's work area includes Kittson County.
"It is a real honor to see people that dedicated for that length of time to the youth of Minnesota," Woinarowicz said. "How lucky we are to have those people that are still dedicated to our program and making sure the youth of Minnesota are safe and ethical hunters."
Over the years, Johnson says he's taught firearms safety to about 20 students annually, on average. Multiply that by 50 years, that means some 1,000 students have benefited from his commitment to firearms safety.
And it's not just 11- and 12-year-olds who have taken his courses, Johnson says.
"I have taught an all-women's class—they said they'd get a divorce if their husbands taught them—where I was the only man in class," Johnson said. He also taught a pair of girls from Mexico visiting family in Kittson County who couldn't get firearms safety training in their home country.
Johnson in recent years has taught most of his classes in the fire hall in Hallock, Minn.
"That works out pretty good because we've got lots of room and don't have to worry about bringing in firearms to demonstrate," he says.
Beyond the basics
The curriculum hasn't changed much since he started teaching, Johnson says, but he'll attend DNR instructor training courses every few years just to make sure he's current.
The minimum classroom requirement for firearms safety is 12 hours, Johnson says, but he routinely offers 20 to 25 hours of classroom time beyond the basics.
Completing his course typically takes about a month, he says.
"We try to take more time (focusing on) the outdoors—conservation, responsibility, that sort of thing," Johnson said. "We're trying to make it so it's not just a shooting and hunting class; it's a conservation and safety class."
Kids have changed in this era of violent video games and violent programming, Johnson says.
"That's not real," he said. "Then they can't figure out why we push that (gun safety) is not a laughing matter. We've lost a little bit of common sense over the last few years. Guns aren't as common as they used to be, and (the kids) don't see the problems with it. We have to try to demonstrate, by shooting a watermelon or cabbage or something, to show them the impact of what a shell does."
The field day Johnson hosts at his farm for his firearms safety students has become a big event, he says. With help from family members and other instructors such as Dale Hanson of Hallock, the kids participate outdoor activities ranging from clay target shooting and archery to learning about treestand safety.
Area chapters of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and Pheasants Forever, along with local businesses, donate prizes or money to help offset costs, and the day wraps up with a big supper.
"It becomes a real big day, but it makes things real nice when we have the support," Johnson said. "Before, it used to come out of our pockets."
"Consequently, we've been able to give a couple of guns away every year, and every kid gets ear muffs and shirts and caps, and they have some fun with it, too, so they enjoy it. And then the parents are invited to the field day, and we encourage them to stay and watch their kids so they learn what we're teaching them."
Johnson's motivation for continuing to teach firearms safety is simple, he says.
"I love it," he said. "I've been able to teach my grandkids and my kids, and I'm teaching grandkids of students that I taught before."
Occasionally, former students will email photos of their first deer or will stop to talk if they see Johnson out and about.
"The kids are appreciative of it—they really are," he said. "I've worked with kids for an awful long time, being a teacher, and I was a youth advisor to a church for many, many years.
"I enjoy working with students, and I guess I just enjoy what I'm doing."